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Gordon Lightfoot: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Our week began with a horror story on a lake and now we will end with a true ghost story on the world’s largest freshwater lake.

I grew up in a small town on the western point of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, just a few miles off the shoreline of Lake Superior. This part of the world is largely untouched by humans and we boast some of the best four-season recreation in the world. From sprawling woods and waterfalls, to ice caves and the most spectacular autumn colors anywhere, it is often easy to think about giving up the stressors of New York City and retreating to my little slice of heaven in Michigan.

However, it doesn’t take living very long in the Upper Peninsula to remember that we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature. With beauty comes pain. The UP has some of the most brutal winters around, often covered in many feet of snow and subzero temperatures. In the late- summer, one moment you could be looking at a million stars colored by the Northern Lights and fifteen minutes later be in the midst of a storm that washes away the lake’s cliffsides and takes your camper to the depths of Lake Superior.

This was the case on November 10, 1975 when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was in the middle of
Lake Superior delivering taconite iron ore from Duluth, Minnesota to Detroit, Michigan. Even
though the ship was about 17 miles from the shores of Sault Saint Marie, it was overtaken by 70-to-75-knot gusts of wind (81 to 86 miles per hour) and rogue waves as high as 35 feet. The exact cause of the wreck is still unknown, though it is believed that the lake’s waves capsized the 25,400 ton ship. We do know, however, that at 7:10pm on November 10 the SS Edmund
Fitzgerald and its 29 crewmen arrived at the bottom of Lake Superior, where they still rest today.

A year after the disaster, Gordon Lightfoot released his Top 40 hit song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, which is still regularly heard in concerts and pubs around the Upper Peninsula.

Thanks for joining me this week on our song travels and have a great weekend!

Stephen Sondheim: The Ladies Who Lunch

I can’t curate a week of Song of the Day posts without featuring my favorite composer, Stephen Sondheim, the musical theatre’s most prolific living writer. I suspect most of you know Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 musical Company, but in case this song slipped off the playlist the last time you were at a Midtown sing-along piano bar I’ll provide a little context.

The show opens on Bobby’s 35th birthday. Happily single (at least he thinks so), Bobby is the
third-wheel in all of his best friends’ relationships and dallies in dating, though he doesn’t
understand why anyone would ever subject themselves to getting married. Towards the end of the musical, Joanne (originated by the legendary Elaine Stritch) sings “The Ladies Who Lunch,” a torch about all her friends and the fake facades in a socialite’s lifestyle. After the song, Joanne comes onto Bobby and reassures him “I will take care of you.” Bobby replies, “But who will I take of?” and this opens that gate stuck inside Bobby which finally allows him to be vulnerable (and sing one of Sondheim’s greatest anthems “Being Alive.” But that’s for another Song of the Day.)

Here we have Elaine Stritch singing her hit song “The Ladies Who Lunch.” I featured this video today because Stritch stripped herself of the antics required to fill a thousand-seat Broadway house and instead looks directly into the camera for her pointed delivery. This is one of the most visceral performances of the song and, simply, one of my very favorites.

Elton John / Sara Bareilles: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

I love when great artists cover other great artists’ songs, especially when the cover version turns a pop tune into a beltress’s torch ballad. Today I present you Sara Bareilles’ piano/vocal rendition of Elton John’s 1973 hit “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Elton John wrote the two-sided album, which features the title song, after having seven Top 40 singles in the previous two years; he was enjoying one of the peaks of his career. John describes the composition period for “Brick Road” as that golden period “before the drugs set in.” The title is inspired by that infamous road in The Wizard of Oz which promises fantasy and prosperity, but leads Dorothy further and further away from home and loved ones. Critics also say that John’s brick road is a metaphor for materialism and all the things that comes with fame. Now, I give you Sara Bareilles singing John.

Stanisław Moniuszko: Szumią jodły na gór szczycie

Stanisław Moniuszko’s Halka is regarded as the Polish national opera and is widely performed in the composer’s homeland. However, the opera is seldom heard outside Poland despite its charming folk dances, haunting melodies, and a star turn for a lyric soprano.

Halka and Jontek grew up together in the mountains of Poland. Jontek’s designs on Halka run deeper than friendship, but Halka is deeply in love with Janusz, the owner of a nearby town, after the two have an affair which leaves Halka pregnant. As required for a proper unrequited operatic love triangle, Janusz doesn’t tell Halka he is engaged to another woman. At the beginning of Act Four, Jontek sits outside the church before Janusz’s wedding and sings this aria as he waits for Halka to arrive and crash the wedding. Spoiler alert: Jontek doesn’t convince Halka he can provide the happiness she desires and after Janusz is married she throws herself in the river—as is required for a properly tragic operatic finale.

Shameless plug: Those readers who are interested in hearing Poland’s national opera for yourself can come to the Bard Summer Music Festival on August 19 to hear Amanda Majeski sing Halka, Aubrey Allicock as Janusz, and yours truly as the unloved Jontek.

Oh, miserable Halka!
She wants to come here.
Hasn’t she had enough tears and sorrow?
She is still thinking about that unfaithful man.
When she sees him with his wife, She may die!
Oh, merciful Jesus!
May Your hand protect this lost girl!
Oh, Lord, take care of her, take care of her!
Maybe somebody will persuade her not to come,
I could not…

Firs are soughing on the mountains peaks,
They are soughing freely,
But my life is sad
As I have a grudge in my heart.
I feel it not for any other human being,
But for you, my poor dear!
Oh, Halino, oh my only one,
My dearest girl!

When we both were children,
I was wandering among black rocks
And climbing down precipices,
As I was looking for colorful birds for you.
I was bringing you
Flowers of the nicest smell
And the most beautiful
Coral beads from fairs.
I do not blame anybody,
But you, my poor dear
Oh, Halino, oh my only one,
It is your fault.

A small quickset is growing!
It becomes a tree;
You grew up and were a miracle to me.
Ach! I would jump into a fire after you.
Years, like winds, blow away,
They flow like fast streams.
A young noble man arrived
And because of him
You rejected me.
I do not blame anybody,
But you, my poor dear.
Oh, Halino, oh my only one,
My dearest girl!


Hugo Wolf and Eduard Mörike: Die Geister am Mummelsee

We begin our week with a horror story in the Black Forest. One of my favorite things about the study of poetry and music is opening my imagination to the world in which these magnificent compositions were birthed. Take a journey with me now to Stuttgart in the 1820s where we meet a twenty-something year old named Eduard Mörike who was studying to be a clergyman but along the way found a passion for writing. We are in the height of German Romanticism and the fascination between our earthly, mortal existence as juxtaposed to the greater and more powerful universe around us. Science has developed enough to begin explaining how nature functions, but for the Romantic thinkers this practical understanding of nature only sparks a deeper awe for the almighty powers that created the universe in the first place. Time and time again in the writing of the German Romantics there is a mortal character as the central figure of the story who encounters an unexplainable—often fearful—supernatural presence. The key for the Romantics, however, is these ghostly forces don’t impose their wrath onto mortals, rather the turmoil comes from within the human and is projected onto the scene, often stunning them until it is too late and our protagonists meet their fate. Thus sets the stage for our 1829 ghost story.

Deep between hills in the northern Black Forest, our protagonist has found the beautiful lake Mummelsee. It is past twilight and the Forest has gone to sleep. Across the lake are small glowing lights coming down from the mountains and the sound of unfamiliar songs. Our speaker soon realizes he has found the ghosts of Mummelsee and they are having a funeral procession for their King. Captivated by their beauty and how the ghosts float above the lake without disturbing the peaceful water, the mortal hides in the bushes seemingly unnoticed. Soon the lake opens up and the ghosts float under for the final stages of their burial procedures. The lake and surrounding forest turn green from the ghosts’ underwater fires. Suddenly, the spirits sense an intruder and swarm out of the water towards the shoreline, only to bring our narrator to his demise.

The Ghosts at Mummelsee
What is coming down from the mountain there
With torches so splendid at midnight so late?
Will there be a dance or perhaps a feast?
The songs sound so feisty.
   O no!
But tell me, what might that be?

What you see is a funeral train,
And what you hear is lamenting.
Due to sorrow for the Sorcerer King,
They are bringing him back again.
   Oh my!
Those are the ghosts of the lake!

They glide down the valley to the lake—
They are treading now on its surface—
Touching it with their feet, yet walking dry-shod—
They whir about in muted prayer—
   O look,
A woman all aglitter at the bier!

Now the lake opens its sparkling green gate;
See how they submerge!
A real set of stairs emerges now,
And—down under, songs being hummed already,
   Do you hear?
They are singing him to rest down there.

How lovely the fires glow on the water!
They flare and then turn green;
Fog moves in clusters along the shore,
The pond is turning into a sea—
   Be still!
Is there something stirring out there?

In the middle a twitching—For heaven’s sake! Help!
They come back again, they are coming!
A bellowing in the reeds, a crunching in the rushes;
Make haste, take flight!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!

Translation: Charles L. Cingolani

The Chieftains: The Foggy Dew

From Miles Mykkanen:

Before coming to Orient for NYFOS@North Fork I spent two months in Europe. My adventures began with a week in Ireland. It was my second time visiting the Emerald Isle but this time around I really fell in love with the country and became fascinated with its compelling history. After a week in the Irish moors and probably enough pints for a year, I trekked off to Vienna for the Franz Schubert Institut where, lo and behold, I met an Irishman and we became fast friends! Between our escapades into the German Lied, my new friend Seán Boylan would introduce me to his favorite Irish bands and singers.

I’ll never forget the night Seán played me The Chieftains’ recording of “The Foggy Dew.” It was a cool, rainy night in Vienna—perfect weather to be celebrating Irish artists. The song narrates the Easter Uprising of 1916 where Irishmen marched into the heart of Dublin and attempted to overtake major buildings—most notably the General Post Office—which were housing British officers. The rebels were annihilated by the British. The Uprising’s leaders, James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, were executed without a trial which lit a necessary fire under the Irish rebellion. Even though the actual Uprising was a major blow for the Irish cause, it was the catalyst that eventually led to Ireland’s independence from the English Crown.

In honor of the Easter Uprising’s centennial, I give you a chilling rendition of “The Foggy Dew” performed by The Chieftains featuring Sinéad O’Connor as the soloist.

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There Armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum, no battle drum did sound its loud tattoo
But the Angelus Bell o’er the Liffey’s swells rang out in the foggy dew.

Right proudly high in Dublin Town hung they out the flag of war
‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud-El-Bar
And from the plains of Royal Meath strong men came hurrying through
While Britannia’s Huns, with their long range guns sailed in through the foggy dew.

Oh the bravest fell, and the Requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Eastertide in the springing of the year
While the world did gaze, in deep amaze, at those fearless men, but few, Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew.

As back through the glen I rode again and my heart with grief was sore For I parted then with valiant men whom I never shall see more
But to and fro in my dreams I go and I kneel and pray for you,
For slavery fled, O glorious dead, when you fell in the foggy dew.

NYFOS@North Fork: Days 5 & 6

The last few days before a concert are always a little tricky to handle. I want to build confidence. I want to fix the little errors—notes, words, rhythms, dynamics—that seem to be repeat offenders. I also want to keep the cast reaching for the heights of expression from depths of their souls—while keeping their work simple, direct, and open. No navel-gazing allowed. As a result, I have to pick my shots: should I mention this incorrect lyric, which I have now heard five times but which isn’t important, or this other one, which I’ve heard twice and is important?

Friday we had a thorough work-through, and Saturday a dress rehearsal. We didn’t stop, except when one song went off the rails and needed to be restarted…and restarted again. I would have been happy to try and keep going, but the singer (whose identity I shall protect) said the fatal words “Oh, shit.” For me, that is like yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, a clear signal of impending disaster. The third time was the charm and the song was a success, and (as I always say) it is better to have a colossal memory slip in rehearsal than in performance.

Miles Mykkanen and Alex Rosen

Miles Mykkanen and Alex Rosen

Everyone wore the shoes they were going to use in the show—a good idea for a concert where there is a bit of movement. It did give Alex a slightly bizarre look: he had on beige cargo shorts, patent leather shoes, and black dress socks. His exposed shins seemed to be in shock, naked in between his beachy clothes and his fancy feet.

We had some important visitors: Andy Smith, and Barbara and Lily Sacharow. They are people I have come to love. Andy is the son of the late Jane Smith, who used to produce these concerts—and indeed most of the musical events in Orient. Barbara and her daughter Lily were among Jane’s most intimate friends, practically family. Jane was also very dear to me, and her death last April after a long bout with cancer was a deep loss. She had fought her illness so hard and so long that I was able to persuade myself she would last forever. Andy’s sad email four and a half months ago hit me hard.

Andy Smith and Steven Blier

Andy Smith and Steven Blier

The program for “Killer B’s” had taken on an especially elegiac quality fifteen years ago when I did it in San Francisco a few months after my own mother’s death. In memory of Jane, I retained many of those songs for this edition: Bolcom’s “Never More Will the Wind,” Bowles’ “Once a Lady Was Here,” Bernstein’s “Spring Will Come Again,” and especially Burleigh’s beautiful ballad, “Jean.” I felt that the community here would appreciate a tribute to someone who had ornamented it for so many years. Above all, I was thinking about Jane’s family and the Sacharows when I put the program together.

My plan to serenade the Smiths and Sacharows got waylaid. It turned out that a high school up-island planned some kind of tribute to Jane at the exact same time as our performance, and they needed the three Smiths and the two Sacharows in attendance. They also asked Barbara to speak at the ceremony. Thus I lost the guests of honor for my show. But I still wanted them to hear the concert, and invited them to the dress rehearsal. Linda and Steve, the sister and older brother, couldn’t make it, but Andy, Barbara, and Lily were there.

Suddenly I was in a dilemma. I had been near tears every time I rehearsed the “Jane songs,” and I was afraid they might hit the family even harder. With no audience to serve as a buffer, the message of grief—so pure and piercing in the songs and in the cast’s performance of them—suddenly seemed like an emotional sledgehammer. Would it be cathartic, or just depressing?

In the end, I think all of them were grateful for the honest tribute to Jane. I believe they were moved by the songs, and the program has so many other colors—humor, brashness, romance, good cheer—that it places grief in the larger continuum of life. You mourn, you move on, you mourn some more, you confront another life issue….

“Killer B’s” doesn’t end with a snappy number, but with a eulogy and a gentle song of hope. We got done, and our little audience applauded us. Then Barbara said, through tears, “You…do have…an encore?” Well, of course we do. And it’s the silliest song of the afternoon, complete with the cast doing the pony. Never has Motown seemed more welcome.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 4

I have always had a complex relationship with the piano. But I have an especially complex relationship with the piano I am playing this week at Poquatuck Hall. Oysterponds Community Activities, the hall’s parent organization, proudly bought the piano several years ago, and it was a major upgrade from the weather-beaten wreck it replaced.

But when I first sat down to play it, I had the oddest sensation of déjà-vu. In fact, I felt as if I were seeing a ghost.

This turned out not to be one of those quirks of brain chemistry, the effect of some errant gas in a cerebral nerve ending. You see, this faded, once-black Mason and Hamlin baby grand was the same instrument I grew up playing. The giveaway was the music-rack: square corners, matte finish, unmistakable. Same vintage, same size, and same timbre. I played it, and suddenly I was five years old again.

Our Mason and Hamlin had belonged to my grandparents. Like the one in Poquatuck, its wood had gotten bleached out by being placed in the sun. Ours had another quirk: the key slip, the piece of wood on the front lip where the white keys descend, was loose and had a habit of edging forward and adhering to them as I played. Being a child, I adapted. I became adept at pulling the key-slip back quickly to unstick the keys while rattling through Schumann’s “The Merry Farmer” or Mozart’s “Ronda alla Turca.” The vagaries of my childhood piano set the course for a lifetime of bizarre technical quirks.

Coming back to the same make and model I played as a kid is a very strange homecoming. Due to some strange acoustical property of the room, I can’t quite hear myself when I am playing—until I biff a note or spazz out on a phrase or lose control of a transposition. Those I hear in Technicolor vividness. The hammers have seen better days and don’t like being played too forcefully. The action of the piano is decent until you get down to very soft dynamics, at which point the notes don’t always sound. This can make an easy song into a mine-field of clunks and unwanted silences.

Like women after the rigors of childbirth, I tend to repress the memories of my struggle with this Mason and Hamlin the minute I am done with the annual concert. But this week I am going through the psychodrama of confronting the instrument that got me hooked on playing the piano. It feels like meeting the guy who gave you the gateway drug, sealing your fate as an addict for life.

Things took a turn for the better yesterday. Unlike the singers, who can practice all morning, run lines while floating in the bay, and review choreography on the beach, I don’t really have a way to put a bandage on the inevitable spots that come undone during a rehearsal week. I literally awaken in the middle of the night going over the knotty measures in my sleep—“fingering my passages in bed,” as the old joke goes. So I have resorted to a kind of Zen technique, getting hold of the task at hand in my mind before I go to rehearsal, picturing a calm connection between my aural concept and my hands, and inducing a spiritual acceptance of the piano’s limitations. I must say that I played a lot better at our work-through yesterday. Yeah, there were some accidents, but no five-car pileups. Nicks and scratches, everything covered by insurance.

unnamed-5As for the cast, “the weather still continues charming,” to quote The Important of Being Earnest. Miles showed his teeth in a way I had not seen before (wonderful), Kelsey’s emotional command continues to detonate, Alex’s warmth and humanity shine through like a beacon (though I occasionally have to ask for them), and Christine—who said she wasn’t feeling too well—blazed through her songs with radiance and power. We had a few visitors and heard our first applause. A mother brought her four-year old son in just as we were launching into Bernstein’s raucous “A Julia de Burgos.” Christine hit a high C for the ages—but mother and toddler were gone by then. I am sure they could hear her a block away.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 3

Wednesday is always the last play-day. People are still giggling over their memory slips, I calmly look the other way when I play a wrong note (which means I am looking the other way quite often), and a certain amount of experimentation remains the order of the day. Sunday’s performance seems centuries away. Everything changes tomorrow, when the glass is definitely half-empty. But today we were in the song-sandbox all afternoon, with the glass safely half-full.

I hustled hard to get to the hall on time and almost made it, speeding down the main road at full speed on my wheelchair, braving oncoming traffic, checking my watch every 40 seconds. I streaked in through the back door, feeling semi-triumphant, only to find the cast completely absorbed in the task of eating their lunch. The room had the deep, meditative quality of a yoga class. Kelsey emerged from the Bikram-haze to offer me a bag of Caesar Snapea Crisps (really good), and I realized that no one was in much a hurry. I reverted to Orient Mode (“We have all afternoon”) and set my nervous system to “Chill.”

It is fascinating to watch this cast sink into the poetry and music. Their first readings had been very good—it was clear everyone already made a real investment in the program. But as my friend Alvin Epstein once said about a young woman working on a scene from Blitzstein’s “Regina,” “It takes years to make a bitch like Regina.” The leap from understanding a song intellectually to living a song as if you’d written it…well, that too can take years. But you can go pretty far in a week if you are in an environment where that is clearly the artistic goal. And a week is what we have.

I’ve been keeping my eye on Kelsey, who has a couple of big acting songs, as well as two that are more lyrical. She is the baby of the group and I feel protective of her. Not that she needs coddling—she’s a strong, self-starting young woman with a keen eye and the soul of an artist. On Monday and Tuesday she’d given very nice, very intelligent readings of Bill Bolcom’s “Toothbrush Time.” But today, something shifted. We talked it over yesterday, located the song in a physical way, filled in some backstory and details. Specifics, like “Where are you? What’s to your left, your right? How long have you been there? What are you wearing? Whom are you talking to—in your mind—a girlfriend? Your shrink?” All of a sudden the piece was happening in real time, and the character’s frustration and compulsiveness were bubbling under every line. Personally, I am a little tired of this song—I first played it in 1979 and it has that not-so-fresh feeling they used to talk about in TV ads. But working with Kelsey today, it rose again, Lazarus-like, and I almost felt as if I were hearing it for the first time.

unnamed-4I am working with four very nice people—decent, sweet, generous colleagues, real boy- and girl-scouts. What is hardest for them is to play characters who are not so nice, not so idealistic, not so saintly. In a group number, supported by one another, they can match Don Rickles for insult humor. We end Act I with “Outside of That, I Love You,” and they practically have a food fight onstage. But that’s comic anger. Real anger, bloody-mindedness, selfishness: these take some real work when they crop up in solo material. I think back to Alvin’s words about Regina—“it takes years to make a bitch.” Can we condense that down to four days?

NYFOS@NorthFork: Day 2

Today we welcomed our fourth singer, Alex Rosen, who arrived a day late after finishing up his residency at Ravinia. He traveled in from Chicago this morning, successfully boarded the notoriously unreliable jitney at the airport station, and waltzed into rehearsal at 3 PM looking fresher than he had any right to look. Alex is a fascinating combination platter. He is kind and generous, emotionally open, but also unflappable and objective. Like a Baked Alaska, he combines sweet, hot, and cool in a way you cannot ignore. Young basses are almost always works-in-progress. It’s a voice type that tends to mature later than tenors and sopranos, and usually goes through a long, awkward adolescence all the way through the singer’s twenties. While the Full Monty of Alex’s voice may only reveal itself in the future, it is astounding how much he is able to do right now. Today he took a good-but-not-great song by Eubie Blake and found its volcanic center, slipping into an easy rapport with its Harlem Renaissance charm. Not many young singers would know what to do with that number—Alex nailed it and made it sound like a masterpiece.

unnamed-3I met Alex three years ago at Wolf Trap. I blush to admit that I was quite late for our 45-minute coaching—I remember I had some hotel accident that ate up the morning. He sang beautifully and I felt I was in the presence of a true artist. Abashed, I swore to him I’d make up the time, but in spite of my best efforts that never came to pass. Still, I always felt guilty about the twenty minutes I owed Alex. This week-long Orient residency seemed like a good payback—20 minutes plus three years of accrued interest.

The music is pouring out of everyone—heartbreak from Kelsey, brio from Christine, panache from Miles. I feel as if I am driving a very fast chariot à la Ben-Hur, hoping to emerge victorious like Charlton Heston.

Tomorrow we are working out our “’ography”—nothing as complex as real choreography, just movement and blocking and (I guess) a few dance steps for the songs that need them. This is a kinetic cast. Should be fun.

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