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NYFOS@North Fork: Day 5

When I planned “Red, White, and Blues” I thought I was making a light summer entertainment: 10 French songs, 10 American songs, encore, done. A pitcher of musical sangria. Then I started working on the program, and got a little carried way with visions of sugarplums. “Wouldn’t it be great to do the aria from Mme Chrysanthème? Gosh, this is the time everyone needs to hear ‘Awaiting You’! Oh, we’re by the water, we should do ‘J’attends un navire’!” The result is that my light repast is more like a five-course meal catered by Lutèce.

This became clear to me when we did our first run of the concert yesterday. Blockbuster number follows blockbuster number. The good news is that Mikaela, Sam, and Bobby are blockbuster types—I actually knew what I was doing. Even though they said they were a little tired, they came through like champs. Mikaela did her emergency brake thing a few times, which always gives me a moment of artistic whiplash. Bobby did a reluctant samba during “Zumba,” after which I was able to relieve him of any actual dancing duties during the concert (I just needed to get him out of park-and-bark mode). The look of relief on his face was a highlight of the week. And Sam is locating the delicate filament of artistic light residing within him. Everything was great except the beginning of Adam Guettel’s “Awaiting You,” so I resorted something I rarely do: I sang it to him the way I thought it should go. I have the voice of an old diva: fragile but hugely expressive. Sam was clever enough to pick up from my scratchy rendition what I wanted, and instantly located the style of the song. (I think that was Jim’s favorite moment—he was taking pictures.)

IMG_6957As for me…well, these North Fork weeks aren’t too easy. I don’t have time to practice and I start to play like a rehearsal pianist, with the full knowledge that at some point I will need to create some beauty of my own. The piano is in a little better shape than last year but it is not an instrument to inspire elegance. Every concert program has about seven spots that my hands don’t like—and I was relieved to learn that this is a common thing among pianists. Three goober-moments can be covered with short cuts that no one will ever know about, though I always feel horribly guilty. (But a famous virtuoso pianist once told me, “Everyone leaves out a note or two, it’s standard practice.”) The other four spots really need some woodshedding, and that is not an option out here. No time. And of course, they are all I think about when I get up to play.

My private agonies are offset by the beauties of Orient and my three young colleagues. Trump is pardoning Joe Arpaio, Venezuela is collapsing, Texas is being pummeled by rain and wind. But out on the east end we have cool, clear weather without a cloud in the sky. My summer house is populated by a group of people I love. And at the intermission break yesterday, we had a blessèd event: our producer, Priscilla Bull, turned up with a homemade pie. “Maine blueberry,” she announced. “So you don’t have to buy pie at the store for eight dollars a slice.”

Now, I don’t eat sugar. I don’t eat wheat. I don’t eat dessert. However, it seems that I eat pie. And this one was sensational. Mikaela cut me a small piece and I wolfed it down as if I had been starving in the wilderness. I sinned again after supper when I brought the pie home to my summer house family. I’m repenting today. But I’m not actually sorry.

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 4

Thursday is the last day I can really work on the songs and push the cast to take risks. On Friday our water breaks as we do our first work-through. Reassurance is the name of the game. On Saturday, contractions start as we have our dress rehearsal. We retreat to our corners. And we deliver the baby on Sunday.

So today I had to be firm with the cast. I hate interrupting an artist who is clearly lost in his world of song, giving his all—while, alas, screwing up in some way. I feel as if I am intruding, being bossy, stepping on a tender plant. But I find that my singers this week actually welcome the intrusion. “That’s why I’m here,” said Sam Grosby. “I need to know.”

Bobby Mellon is proving to be a force of nature, a thrilling voice and a geyser of emotional reserves. Our work is mostly about when to let it rip, when to be more objective. (It’s also a mini-seminar in French vowels.) In an effort not to overplay his hand, he can flatten out the big moments—like the second verse of “Le manoir de Rosemonde,” when I told him to go for it. “Lay into that second verse—‘si la course ne te HARASSE!’ “Oh, OK. I was…trying to be a nobleman, like we talked about yesterday.” “A nobleman who is losing his shit! Go.” I am also trying to get him to sell the tango-habanera “Zumba.” “You’re in front of a crowd of 3000 at the Olympia Theater in Paris, and they’ve all come to hear you sing your signature tune so they can tell their grandchildren.” “I am…?” “Yes. So unlock your knees, let your arms go free, and for god’s sake don’t be afraid to shake your booty.” This, by the way, does not seem to be an issue for Sam and Mikaela, who are dancing as they backup Bobby in that song.

My task with Sam is to get him to tap into his natural musicality, and to trust his natural musicianship. He’s a warm, spontaneous guy and a class-A singer, but he has a way of getting academic on me. “Sam, the beginning of your Duparc needs more warmth, more persuasiveness.” “Oh, yeah, I know, but I was saving some of that for the second verse…” “No. NO! Grab the audience from the first line, don’t worry about the second verse. Duparc will give you the ammo for the second verse. Cajole, persuade, seduce from the beginning. If you don’t create the atmosphere in the first three lines, the audience won’t care what you do in the second verse.” We did it again and the piece was transformed, suddenly filled with longing, tenderness, and humanity. “What did you do? What did that feel like?” “I felt as if I were just singing a cabaret song.” “Well, it was stylish and alive, not at all vulgar. You were making music. You into that?” “YES!” His Gershwin was similarly transformed when I told him, “OK, Sam, your character has just had sex three times in two hours, you’re practically liquefied, and you’re waiting for the takeout Thai food to arrive.” Bingo. Languor, humor, and the voice of a guy who has just gotten very, very lucky.

Mikaela doesn’t have problems letting herself go, but there are moments when she isn’t sure what she wants to do or what the song is up to, and things come to a sudden stop. As her partner, it is like going from 85 miles an hour on the open road to a screeching dead halt, as if she spotted a slow-moving animal crossing the road. Her questions are perfectly good ones—like, “How do I sing the last page of ‘J’attends un navire’ without spitting up half my larynx?” or “Should I take an optional high Bb or an optional high D at the end of the Saint-Saëns?” or “I can’t find that G-natural on page 2.” Sam and Bobby keep going even when they make mistakes, sometimes giving a gentle wave, the international singer’s signal for “my bad.” Mikaela pulls the emergency brake.

We had a few listeners today, people from the town who have been involved with producing the concert. All of them were blown away by the singing they heard, and with good reason. I decided to pull one of them in to help Bobby with his Kurt Weill song, “Complainte de la Seine,” whose lyric is a long list of all the things at the bottom of the river. Some of them are beautiful, many of them truly gruesome. It’s very mid-century French existentialist—a stance familiar to me from literature courses I’ve taken, but not something that was part of Bobby’s education. “The point is that life has its beauties but it has its dark side. We need to be tough to survive, and not flinch from the truth. Even when it is our own deep loss.” Something was slightly off in his delivery, and  I got the idea that he needed to read the translation to someone—to tell them what life was like in the words of the song. So I asked one of our visitors to be a scene partner. “Ask Bobby what’s at the bottom of the Seine.” “Um…what’s at the bottom of the Seine…?” “At the bottom of the Seine, there is gold, there are tears, there are lovers who couldn’t go on living.” “Oh, my…!” “There are feet cut off by propellers, and grey monsters, and vomit, there are white fetuses no one ever loved…” he continued. “Oh god!” Her tanned face was going ashen. Bobby finished and I turned to him and started to say something about the where the objectivity needed to turn to emotion, when I realized that we needed to close the loop with his scene partner who was still standing there aghast. “Um, you understand that those were the lyrics to the song, right?” “Ohhhh…they were? Ohhhh. I get it now.”

But her innocence was exactly what Bobby needed. The song contains both coldness and warmth, a uniquely French combo of sensuality and precision. Bobby shocked our guest, and comforted her, and in the process he began to own the piece for himself.

Another very fine day.IMG_7220

NYFOS@North Fork: Day 3

Unlike some coaches I’ve observed, I don’t tend to start my work by manipulating the surface of the music. Sure, I can be a maniac on the first day about language, because those kinds of errors do need to be nipped in the bud. They take days to repair. But I try not to pick away at musical minutia at the beginning. It just makes singers uptight and passive, waiting to be told what to do. Instead, I look for the basic expressive idea, the character, the style of each song. Who is singing? Why do they need to say this? Where are they? What are they not saying? What happens to them during the song? Every piece turns into a scene, often with a silent, internalized partner. We make up a mental movie, we find the genie in the bottle. I suppose it’s the Talmudic approach to song interpretation—questions, not answers.

But there does come a point where I need to climb down off my High Art Cloud and talk practicalities, and today was that point. Imagination ranks highest on my list, but sometimes singers want to know what sound to make, and how to make it. Two examples: Sam is singing Adam Guettel’s “Awaiting You,” which was written for Billy Porter. Sam is a lyric tenor who sings Mozart without a mic, while Billy sounds like Stevie Wonder on acid—a high, keening near-countertenor, usually amplified. Adam’s song ends with a high falsetto phrase that comes naturally to its first performer, but is tough for almost anyone else to do. Sam tried one thing and another—full voice, disembodied falsetto. Nothing really sounded right. I thought about it and said, “Sam, if you were in an opera rehearsal and you had to mark the high notes”—that’s what singers do when they want to take it easy on their voice—“what would you do?” “I dunno, something like this…” Whereupon he let out the sweetest, gentlest high Bb’s imaginable. Perfect. Easy. Singers have all kinds of sounds kicking around their bodies. Sometimes you just have to ask for them.

Bobby has the makings of a Verdi voice, and I did not want to start our work by squelching his sound. I imagined that he’d been told over and over again that art song had to be tiny and fragile (and he confirmed my suspicion during our session today). But cutting off the voice cuts off everything else too: expression, musicianship, freedom, passion. I resolved to get him to ease off the voice without shaming him about having such a prodigious amount of it. In the Saint-Saëns duet “Vénus,” which he sings with the lighter-voiced Sam, I simply said: “Boys, sing this piece TOGETHER.” Bobby knew what I was getting at, and made a sound I’d not heard from him before, the sweet timbre of a French horn played by a master. And voilà, the music flowed à la française. I could have sworn both boys had put on berets when I wasn’t looking.

Screen Shot 2017-08-24 at 10.26.34 AMMikaela had had her own aha-moment working on her Saint-Saens vocalise. At break time she rewarded herself with a piece of pie from our Brooklyn-based, chi-chi pastry/ice cream place called Four and Twenty Blackbirds. A cup of tea costs $4, a slice of pie $8. (Eye roll.) But she was running low on fuel and she had to deal with me for a few more hours, so pie seemed to be her only option. I got a tiny taste of it—apple/maple, and very good indeed—but Bobby gallantly passed. Not without regret, as you can see in the picture.

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 5

unnamed-8We weren’t sure we’d be able to make it to Westchester today. They predicted a lengthy snowfall with five to seven inches accumulated on the ground by noon. So we made a bunch of contingency plans, and were prepared to load the singers onto a Metro-North train to work at my house in the afternoon. But it turned out to be a fairly benign snowfall in above-freezing temperatures. The roads were clear (and blessedly empty) on the way up to Caramoor, and we managed to stay on course. The grounds were beautiful (see picture). Even the Saw Mill Parkway was a late-winter wonderland.

Michael is just back from a big gig in Hong Kong, where he premiered four songs and also played a couple of concerts—and that trip came on the heels of two huge NYFOS projects in January and February. As a result, I didn’t ask him to play in this performance, but just to coach. After all, I had Ho Jae by my side to take some of the songs and play four-hand piano with me.

It is an interesting way to work. I am onstage, where I mostly see and hear the performers from behind. I am their duet partner, so I have an intimate, moment-to-moment sense of what’s happening. But of course, I am either preoccupied with playing the piano and honing my own performance, or coaching Ho Jae in the songs he’s doing. Michael is in the hall, and sees everything (including me) from out front. I experience certain things vividly from my vantage point, while he perceives other things from his. We become a George Foreman grill of team-coaching, applying heat from both sides of the footlights. I am oriented to the lyrics, Michael to the action, both of us to the musical nuances. I know some of the songs more intimately, he has a far better understanding of how to work with Marco Granados (our flautist) and Karen Ouzounian (our cellist). He is good with the singers’ physicality, and I can often help with their singing.

It’s working.

As I was getting dressed this morning I had a stray thought: I wondered how much information about the songs the cast had absorbed. Before we started I’d sent my program note and some other materials for them to read, and of course I’d shared some intel with them during their rehearsals. Had they paid attention?

We are doing one song whose sheet music does not list the composer’s or the poet’s names because it is part of a cycle—they’re on the title page but not the individual pieces. I followed my morning hunch. After we sang the song, I said, “OK, guys, who wrote this song?” Blank, panicked stares. No one knew the composer’s name. Then I picked out a couple of Spanish words that were particular—and important—to this piece, Afro-Cuban terms used in mid-century Havana. “What is Regla? What is a comparsa?” They’d been singing these words for days, but alas, they couldn’t remember what they meant.

In past years I would have blown up and shamed everyone. But I think I am wiser now. I realized that they already felt ashamed, and that in any case shame is not the greatest teaching tool. So I explained about the composer and poet, told the history of the song, translated the words they were unsure of, and then gave them a short lecture on why they need to know as much as they can about the music they sing. I know what singers are like and how they get that way. They are judged on their voices, and nowadays they are also judged on their looks. But no one gives a rodent’s behind about what they know. They just have to sound good. As a result, many singers memorize stuff quickly without really understanding it. And they are often amazingly convincing anyway—they’ve got instincts and chutzpah, which are a huge mitzvah.

But…it’s not enough for me and it’s not enough for them. I gave them the gentlest and most humanistic reading of the riot act that they will ever hear.

Besides that Madame Lincoln, how was the rehearsal? Really excellent. This is a crazy-good program that includes Broadway tunes, vocal chamber music, and a Zulu call-and-response. These folks are hitting home run after home run. Ben navigates the Ravel with beautiful command. And it turns out Jack has a piano high C and a forte high C, and he has them every time he sings the fabulous Cuban song “Tú.” He opens his mouth…and my jaw drops.

Don’t miss hearing all of  them at Caramoor on Sunday, or in New York at Merkin Concert Hall on Tuesday.

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 4

Something has been missing for me from the last few Caramoor residencies: one-on-one time with each singer, the kind of interaction where mountains get moved and new artistic ideas get planted. It’s mostly been a question of scheduling: when we have a guest coach, the singers are all in one room with Michael and me and the imported guru, and we simply have less one-on-one time. And this week we’ve had guest teachers every day. Until today. I determined to seize the opportunity for quality time with Ben and Christine, and it turned out to be extremely valuable. Singers share truths (and fears) when they’re alone with you that they would never say in a group, and my sensitivities are also sharper and more specific when I am in that intimate teaching environment. The more people there are in a room, the more generalized my responses get. Too much metal confuses my magnet.

unnamed-7So it was a relief to be semi-alone for a spell with Ben Dickerson and Christine Price (whom I always call “Miss Price,” followed by the breathless declaration “I have ALL your CDs”). Semi-alone because we had some visitors sitting in the back of the room during our sessions, and Eileen Schwab was in Row A. Eileen is the primary sponsor of our program, which is named after her late husband Terrance—she is a hugely sensitive and intelligent woman whom Michael and I hold close to our hearts. And of course Ho Jae was with us too. But somehow I finally felt able to address a couple of delicate vocal and musical issues that required relative privacy. It’s better to be, or at least feel, unobserved when you have one of those “you keep doing this but I want you to do that instead” conversations. Often the the “this” and “that” are either delicate, intangible things or some vocal bad habit that is rearing its head once more, easy to identify but hard to change.

I am happy to say that we did some strong work and that both of them sang with a new kind of abandon in the afternoon. The other person who had a big breakthrough was Hannah, who has been a little tentative in her two big showpieces all week. The second of these is a Cuban zarzuela aria, a real barn-burner with a take-no-hostages climax.  Ho Jae was playing it beautifully (that guy can make a piano sing) but he didn’t quite understand the timing of the final phrases, which require some unmarked tempo changes. He was following Hannah’s every gesture, but unfortunately she was schlepping where the music needs to move, rushing through a crucial fermata, and making the high note at the end much harder than it needed to be.

Now, I know a thing or two about romantic and Verismo-era vocal music—I grew up listening to it. I don’t understand Stockhausen, and all twelve-tone music sounds pretty much the same to me, and minimalism puts me into a deep sleep. But give me a blood-and-guts mezzo aria with a high A at the end and I am like a terrier after a rat. First I burst out singing it to Hannah with the timing and inflection I wanted. (“Singing” is a kind description of the noises I was making.) Then I asked Ho Jae to relinquish the keyboard and I shocked myself by attacking the piano like a hungry matron at a bar mitzvah buffet. I dove into a tremolo, and once again Hannah plunged into her phrase early, and of course, I shrieked “NO, NO, NO, WAIT!” and then I gestured her in, belting out the climax with her. “Not ‘por él sabréeeeeeeee morir,’ but ‘por él sabré AHHHHHHHHHHHH morir!’”  “Oh, can I change the vowel like that?” said Hannah. “YOU HAVE TO CHANGE THE VOWEL! YOU CAN’T SING A HIGH NOTE ON A SQUEEZED VOWEL!” You see, this type of music brings out one of my personas that very few people get to see: the screaming maestro, which is only a few steps away from another one: the imperious opera queen.

It seemed to be exactly what Hannah needed. She was singing at full tilt, knockin’ out the final phrases of the aria over and over again. They sounded great, she was acting up a storm and carrying on. Fabulosity flowed. After we got done, I was showing Ho Jae a few things about how I wanted him to play the piece and Hannah gave us two more fortissimo high A’s. I knew she was a feisty powerhouse when she auditioned for me. How great to see her trust that wild energy in rehearsal!

Oh yeah…Jack did some great stuff today too…but I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

Four Islands

Notes on the Program by Steven Blier for Four Islands
March 14, 2017 at Merkin Concert Hall. Buy tickets here >


I always used to joke that one of the important things Michael Barrett and I had in common was that we both came from islands: Michael was born in Guam, and I was born in Manhattan. This quip could always be counted on to bring down the house at a NYFOS concert. In recent years, though, I have started to wonder if there wasn’t some truth underlying my flippant remark. Island dwellers, whether urban or tropical, all seem to develop certain traits. We crave the proximity of water, which provides us with a comforting aquatic buffer from the rest of the world. We see ourselves as fundamentally different from (and superior to) our landlocked neighbors. We are often under attack from outside enemies, and must learn to protect ourselves from invasion.

Michael and I have talked about exploring the idea of island songs for some years. As everyone waits impatiently for spring to arrive, what could be more enticing than to take a cruise around the world and hear the songs of its islands? Sailing from Ireland to Cuba and thence to Madagascar, we’ll finally dock in Manhattan, my island of choice.


The Irish speak in music. Anyone who has visited the Emerald Isle knows that the lilt of the Irish accent turns the most prosaic utterance—“Would you like butter on that scone?”—into something resembling song. Irish music, like African-American music, was that of an oppressed people. It has ancient roots, drawing on haunting modes including the five-note pentatonic scale and the ethereal sound of the Irish harp.

We’ll start with a pair of traditional Irish tunes: “The Palatine’s Daughter” and “Siúl a Ghrá,” which marks NYFOS’s very first foray into Gaelic. The first of these is a sprightly jig with a long pedigree. Like many Irish folk songs, it is based on an old tune, a hornpipe called “Garden of Daisies.” It is a story of assimilation: the Palatines were a Northern European, German-speaking population forced out of their country, the Palatinate, by war in the early eighteenth century. England offered them asylum, and in 1711 three hundred Palatine families arrived in Dublin, eventually forming enclaves throughout Ireland. As you can see, some of them did quite well in their new homeland.

For romance, we’ll turn to a pair of folk song settings John Corigliano composed for the Irish/American bard Robert White in 1990. Corigliano accompanies the voice not with piano but with a flute obbligato, exploiting it to evoke a surprisingly wide range of colors. “The Foggy Dew” is not the wry Burl Ives tune most of us know, but a flirtatious story of courtship set to a sensuous pentatonic melody. “She Moved through the Fair,” a classic recorded by everyone from Pete Seeger to Led Zeppelin, evokes a mysterious nighttime encounter between two lovers.

At the age of 19, the English composer Sir Arnold Bax read W. B. Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin. “The Celt within me stood revealed,” he later wrote. Ireland became his passion, and on his frequent visits he formed close ties to the people and their culture. He chose to “follow the dream,” moved to Dublin for over a decade, and adopted an Irish pseudonym, Dermot O’Byrne. Under that name, he published poetry, short stories, and plays. One of his most important books was A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems, a response to the Easter Uprising in 1916. Bax had been close to many of the important Irish leaders who were massacred. His passionate recounting of the tragedy was banned in Britain. Bax’s music also “follows the dream,” with its broad, bardic sweep and modal harmony. The darkly brooding song “As I Came Over the Grey, Grey Hills” finds emotional clarity in Joseph Campbell’s opaque words, leading to a climax that is both shimmering and weighty.

“Eileen Óg” is the handiwork of Houston Collisson and Percy French, a hugely successful songwriting team from the late 1890s. They produced a large repertoire of popular songs and operas, including the evergreen “Mountains of Mourne.” Like many Irish ballads of that era, the vocal line of “Eileen Óg” has a more operatic feel than its English or American equivalents. After all, it’s scored for Irish tenor, full of blarney and high notes.


Ever since the runaway success of Buena Vista Social Club, the music of Cuba has become popular and ubiquitous. Who doesn’t love a habanera? But underneath the rhythmic verve lies a darker story of the island’s social and political strife. Racial tensions ran high, just as they did—and do—in our country, and slavery was the fate of the Afro-Cubans until 1886. But as the years rolled by the island’s two cultures gradually began to intermingle. Cuban music was there to document the grafting of Spanish elegance onto the complex throb of African rhythms, to form that unique sound we love today. It evolved slowly. In 1900, white dance bands didn’t use drums, while black street bands relied on all kinds of percussion, most of it homemade. The Spanish elements suppressed, resisted, slowly co-opted, and finally embraced the rhythms of the oppressed Afro-Cubans. Much of this was due to the new popularity of radios, which allowed proper middle-class people to enjoy the animal abandon of criollas and danzones in the privacy of their homes. Soon they even felt comfortable about stepping out onto the dance floor to do the rumba, which had previously been banned as indecent.

If the Spanish component of Cuban music can be called its right wing and the African component its left wing, Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes (1874-1944) was a staunch rightist. He wrote his hit tune “Tú” when he was 18 years old. Fuentes lived long enough to understand that the progress of his country’s music would inevitably include contributions from both parties. Cuba’s music would never be able to remain “racially pure” and free of Afro-Cuban influences as he would have wanted it.

Each of the composers we are hearing is a spokesman for a different part of Cuba’s musical history. Emilio Grenet led the way in blending Cuba’s disparate cultures, setting Afro-Cuban poetry to music of sly sophistication. Sindo Garay, part Spanish and part South American Indian, was a natural talent, illiterate until he was 16, and never able to read music. Yet his gift for trova—lyrical, guitar-accompanied song—earned him an undying place in the Cuban pantheon. His hit tune “Guarina” has the elegance of a bel canto song. Ernesto Lecuona enjoyed the most successful career of all, with a legacy of over four hundred songs, fifty-three theater pieces, eleven film scores, and a huge repertoire of salon pieces for piano. Lecuona’s fusion of the classical and the popular, the African and the Spanish, decisively turned Cuban music a worldwide phenomenon.

Alejandro García Caturla was among the first Cubans to receive recognition in Europe as a classical composer. This is all the more remarkable because he combined his life as a musician with a second career as a judge. While he was a law student, he met Alejo Carpentier, one of Cuba’s greatest writers and activists. Carpentier opened the world of French surrealism to the composer, which gave Caturla the impetus to go to Paris and study composition with Nadia Boulanger. Carpentier was one of the first promoters of Afrocubanismo, and spread the message while he was living in Paris during the late 1920s by promoting Cuban musicians and painters. Middle-class Cubans may have disdained the new wave of Afro-Cuban art, but Parisians had embraced primitivism for over a decade and responded vociferously to the new energy from Latin America and the Caribbean.

While he was attending a festival in Barcelona, Caturla received a wire from Carpentier in Paris commissioning him to set his “Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos” (of which “Juego Santo” is the second song) to music for a concert scheduled to take place in a matter of weeks. Caturla rose to the challenge, and the premiere at Salle Gaveau by soprano Lydia Rivera with Ernesto Lecuona at the piano resulted in superlative reviews. His European career was assured

Alas, it ended too soon. At home Caturla waged a campaign against corruption and became known as a tough fighter. In 1940, at the age of 34, he became involved with a case of spouse abuse. The defendant thought, wrongly, that his case would end up in Caturla’s court. Rather than subject himself to the rigorous implementation of the law, he shot Caturla in the street. One of Cuba’s brightest lights was extinguished.

Cuba’s musical theater began in the 1800s with a proliferation of satirical sainetes—disposable, one-act operettas like sitcoms, in which social and political issues could be aired in a light-hearted way. Starting in the early 1920s, Cuban artists started to give their operettas a grander framework by starting a Cuban zarzuela repertoire, grafting both their dance rhythms and their social concerns onto the popular Spanish light-opera formula. It flowered during one of Cuba’s grimmest political eras, when the island fell under the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. Life became increasingly violent, underground groups tried to topple the regime, and the Machadistas retaliated. In this dangerous atmosphere, zarzuelas were at once a popular, tuneful entertainment as well as a safe way to focus on difficult social issues, especially interracial romance. Most of the stories were set in the past, to avoid direct parallels with current events. The plots usually involved a mulata, her faithful black suitor, and her fickle, exploitative white paramour. Such is the case with José Mauri’s La esclava, one of the first in the new genre. The heroine Matilda pours out her heart with the abandon of a Mascagni heroine—and ultimately perishes like one as well.


Irish composers and poets don’t need to work hard to evoke their homeland. The Irish spirit resides in their artistic DNA. But Maurice Ravel had to draw on all his sophisticated craft to create a musical Madagascar in his 1926 vocal chamber work Chansons madécasses. It was commissioned by the formidable American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who funded an impressive array of twentieth century masters from Copland (Appalachian Spring) to Barber (The Hermit Songs), and also built the concert hall at the Library of Congress. She was a passionate advocate for modern music, and insisted “not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.”

When Coolidge telegrammed Ravel with her request for a new vocal work, she asked if it could be scored for piano, flute, and cello. At that moment, Ravel was re-examining a book of poems by Evariste Parny on the subject of Madagascar. Ravel chose three of Parny’s poems that fired his imagination, and got to work on what turned out to be a ground-breaking work, the Chansons madécasses.

Ravel had first come into contact with Parny’s poems in 1900 when he was a student. That was also the year of the Exposition universelle de 1900, where Madagascar had a well-attended pavilion featuring an enormous scale model of the island. During the day there were short concerts of native music, which many think Ravel attended. Certainly there is nothing else like the Chansons madécasses in Ravel’s oeuvre. Each of the three instruments is completely independent of the others, and Ravel pushes them to their limits in order to make unusual sound effects. The low register of the flute becomes a trombone-like war cry in the second song, the pizzicato cello in the last song turns into an African tambour, the high cello harmonics sound like a Malagasy wooden flute, and the piano ostinatos become throbbing gongs. In the madécasses, every instrument plays in a different key from the others, and sometimes in no recognizable key at all. The net effect is astonishing, erotic, languorous, and startlingly fierce in the middle movement, where the speaker admonishes his listeners to be wary of the invading white man.

Evariste Parny (1753-1814) never actually visited Madagascar, though he was born in that part of the world—the Île de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean. But he was fascinated by the culture of the island. Parny was a fervent anti-colonialist and published his Chansons madécasses as a way of bringing Malagasy culture to the understanding of western readers. He claimed to have adapted his texts from a volume of Madagascar poems from the early eighteenth century, though it is now thought they were entirely his own creation. Parny described a world where the women were the workers and the men lived a life of ease. “They are passionate about music and dance; their songs are simple, lovely, and always melancholy.”  The native form of expression was not poetry, but an elevated, florid prose which Parny recreated in his work. As a result, his Chansons madécasses became one of the earliest examples of prose poetry.

The Chansons madécasses are a musical exploration of a culture that the composer created primarily out of his imagination, and a social portrait of a place the poet never visited. From these elements emerges a work of great truth, and one whose early-1920s Modernism still startles the listener with its originality.


There are countless songs about my home town—I should know, I just listened about two hundred of them. The themes include our perfect bagels, the inconvenience of tourists, the nostalgia for buildings that have long been torn down, the disdain for other boroughs and nearby states.

But I wanted to avoid the clichés and capture the true spirit of New York through a series of character portraits. First up is Liza Elliott, the magazine editor who is the heroine of Lady in the Dark by Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Moss Hart. All of the show’s musical sequences are enactments of Liza’s dreams—she is in psychoanalysis because of her inability to make important decisions. “One Life to Live” is her exuberant hymn to life in her “Success Dream,” delivered as a soapbox speech at Columbus Circle.

We next meet Cathy, the heroine of Jason Robert Brown’s autobiographical musical The Last Five Years. We are with her at a series of unsuccessful musical theater auditions, as well as a lunch date with her father where she pours out her frustration. If you ever wondered what distracted thoughts flit through a performer’s mind when she is onstage, fasten your seatbelt and listen up. Jason Robert Brown’s song is devastatingly funny—and sad—and accurate.

“Through a Keyhole” was written for Irving Berlin’s smash hit revue As Thousands Cheer, but the song never made it to the stage. Its lyric was far too risqué for Depression-era Broadway, and it got cut. Berlin, of course, is best known for wholesome Americana like “God Bless America” and “Easter Parade.” But the man had a devilish sense of humor and could give Cole Porter a run for his money when it came to sexy innuendo—he (anonymously) wrote a verse for “You’re the Top” far more salacious than any of Porter’s lyrics for the song. To this day, “Keyhole” remains unpublished. It still has the power to raise an eyebrow or two

“Litany” comes from one of John Musto’s first successes, the song cycle Shadow of the Blues. He wrote it for Christopher Trakas and me in 1985 to include on our Naumberg Award CD. Its blend of Italianate cantilena and New York blues make this a quintessential Musto tune. It is more meaningful than ever to hear Langston Hughes’ prayer for the poor people of our city. The poem is over 70 years old, the music more than 30 years old—yet they evoke contemporary New York with concise eloquence.

So does “I Happen to Like New York,” from Cole Porter’s 1930 show The New Yorkers. Here is the Manhattan I know—and the Manhattanite I am at heart, under my gentle exterior. The song is a New Yorker’s credo: you live here and the world comes to you. You take a trip abroad, i.e., you travel ten minutes across the Hudson, and you want to race home as soon as possible. Brash, confident, and wedded to the glories and indignities of city life—Porter fits it all perfectly into a New York minute.

These days the cuisine of every island in the entire world is available for takeout 24/7. Today we give you a multi-cultural musical meal, a Grubhub of song. It’s a bracing journey filled with upheavals, mysteries, hates and loves, war and peace—ending with a celebration of the island I call home, my beloved Manhattan.

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 2

Tuesday is traditionally the most carefree play-day at Caramoor. The Sunday concert still seems a long way off, memorization is not making everyone into zombies, and we can still do some real exploration with the singers and the songs. Michael and I have a sense of what we’d like our cast to get out of the week’s project, and there seems to be just enough time. It’s like working with plaster of Paris: there is a certain window when the materials are malleable before they harden for good. We seized the day, all of us.

Our second guest coach was with us, the Venezuelan flautist Marco Granados. As Michael said to me, “Marco has to be the sweetest man on the planet. After your husband Jimmy, of course.” It is true: Marco radiates warmth and generosity even when a patron seated next to him at lunch is saying, “I think Trump has some awfully good ideas, don’t you?” I dropped my head into my lunch plate and studied my roasted potatoes very, very hard, but Marco remained gentle and pliant. I was so glad he fielded that question. I believe his answer was some vowel-less murmur (“Mmnnh!”) that could be interpreted anyway you liked.

Marco is doing double duty with us, playing in the Ravel cycle “Chansons madécasses” and some of the Irish songs, while also stepping up to the plate as our Spanish coach. No one in our cast speaks Spanish, and most classical singers don’t have to deal with Iberian, South American, or Caribbean music until they get a gig with NYFOS. The Cuban scores are badly printed, with arcane handwritten lyrics that make “adorable” look like “adorabla” and “sabe” look like “saba,” while turning poetic lines into traffic jams of cluttered letters. For some reason I was most concerned about Ben Dickerson, to whom I gave anAfro-Cuban piece written in street slang. Ben is very cultured and internal, the kind of guy you want to hear in Vaughan Williams or Poulenc or Pizzetti. I didn’t know if he could ace the piece but I thought, well, it’s just one song and it’ll be good for him.

That turned out to be the understatement of the day. Ben is such a strong musician and so smart that he got the essence of “Tú no sab’ ingle” pretty much on the first reading. He needs a little encouragement to realize the full brattiness, the cojones, of the song. He may not lead with his hips like a Cuban, but that Vermont boy can definitely swing with the best of them.

Everyone shone today—Hannah Dishman radiated feisty heat as both an Irish country lass and a frustrated music theater wannabe; Jack Swanson figured out how to be a narcissistic Latin lover in one piece and a creepy Manhattan voyeur in another; and Christine Price raised the roof with Kurt Weill and seduced everyone in sight with her Corigliano songs. Ho Jae Lee and I improvised four-hand arrangements (that guy is a trip!). But the highlight for me was the Zulu folk song, which I had been avoiding for no real reason. It’s short—two pages—and not complicated. But I feel irrationally daunted when I have to make vocal arrangements, even though I do it all the time and usually come up with something good. After lunch we plunged in—Jack, Christine, Hannah, Marco, and I—and I think we came up with something exotic and haunting. We can keep developing it, but the bones are there—one voice leading to harmony and finally erupting with Marcos’ bird calls on his flute. Are we ready for the soundtrack of a documentary about Madagascar? Ask me tomorrow.

unnamed-5 In the photo: Jack Swanson and Marco Granados search for the “fuego sagrado.”

Get your tickets to Four Islands today!  Sunday, March 12, 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tuesday, March 14, 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 1

I always look forward to the first day of Caramoor rehearsal, but I also fear the first day of Caramoor rehearsal. This year’s outing, Four Islands, is a complicated show with songs from Ireland, Cuba, Madagascar, and Manhattan in five languages (including Gaelic and Zulu). It has music hall, vocal chamber music, Afro-Cuban heat and contemporary cool. I knew one of my cast members well, and another was a singer with whom I had a short but fruitful acquaintance. The other two were people I believed in but actually knew very little. So was my pianist.

unnamed-4My instincts led me right: this is an adventurous and gifted cast, and they seem ready to take it all on. There was a moment this morning when I asked pianist Ho Jae Lee if he wanted to take over for a bit. At that point we were working on a Cuban piece called “Guarina,” and we’d just decided to perform it a half-step higher. Ho Jae ploughed into the song with grace and assurance, embellishing the printed page with his own touches, and soon playing with a combination of fire and subtlety that made my flesh tingle. Christine Price, my soprano, caught my eye and nodded her head with a smile that said, “Yup, he’s our guy.” Then a charming thing happened—Ho Jae got a little carried away and lost control of the transposition for about a measure before righting himself. It’s exactly the kind of thing that happens to me when I am on a roll that turns into a skid, and it endeared him to me forever. I later realized: we were hearing Ho Jae’s first-ever Cuban song. It’s also his first-ever Irish music, his first-ever American musical theater, and his first-ever Chansons madécasses. I described him as “an ocean of music,” and I am thrilled to lead him into uncharted waters.

I wanted Naomi O’Connell to come and coach the Gaelic song, and also to check in on the rest of the Irish material. Normally I prefer to have our guest teachers up a little later in the week after we’ve gotten to know one another and put things in place. But Naomi’s schedule dictated that she had to be with us today. I needn’t have worried: Naomi, who was my student at Juilliard, is a magnificent teacher. I’d never seen her in this role before, but she is sharp about the details, full of useful rehearsal techniques, and a laser surgeon when it comes to vocal, dramatic, and muscular first-aid. I have found that singers like to have another singer helping them. No matter how smart, how caring, or how intuitive I am, I shall never quite attain the level of trust that vocalists accord to one of their own. Naomi had my trust too, and she set us up for the week. I hope I can keep the vibration going. My favorite moment: getting Jack Swanson to say “I know a girl that could knock you into fits” with perfect Irish intonation. “Gir-ell!” “Girl!” Noooh, Jack, tooh syllables: gir-ell!” “Gir-ell!” “Good. Knock ya into FITS!” “KNOCK you into fits.” “No! Jack! Imitate me: knock yuh inta FITTTS!” “Knock yuh inta FITTTS!” “That’s it. [Turning to me] This one’s a good mimic!”

It was something of a miracle that I got to rehearsal at all. Michael was determined to be at Caramoor for the first day, and he is the designated driver of the wheelchair van that takes me back and forth. He had just flown in from Hong Kong, after a 22-hour trip that landed him at JFK at 6 AM this morning. But there he was at my door, right on time, focused and coherent and full of his usual sweet energy. It was a day of heroism and bravery, with everyone stepping into uncharted terrain. But Michael Barrett walked off with the prize: Hong Kong one day, Katonah the next, without missing a beat.

Get your tickets to Four Islands today!  Sunday, March 12, 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tuesday, March 14, 8pm at Merkin Concert Hall (NYC)

Frank Bridge: Goldenhair

My teaching week has mixed coaching sessions with auditions for the January NYFOS@Juilliard show: an all-British program called “From Lute Song to the Beatles.” I had asked the students to bring in English song, suggesting they they might offer one art song in tandem with either an operetta aria or a popular song. It’s only Tuesday and I’ve already heard Finzi, Quilter, Britten, John Ireland, and Purcell—plus two renditions of Yum-Yum’s aria from The Mikado (one of them sinuous and accurate with the text, the other less so); a song by the British band Keane which was then popularized by Lily Allen—don’t worry if these names don’t ring a bell, I hadn’t heard of them either (and I can’t say the music did a lot for me); and several surprisingly good performances of Beatles songs. One young woman tore into “All My Loving” with a kind of spontaneous openness I’d never witnessed in her classical singing. Another woman, whose low register had struck me as a little weak and colorless when I heard her ten days ago, delivered a sensationally vibrant version of “Blackbird.” Contrary to received wisdom, hearing singers trot out their opera arias doesn’t tell you everything about their voice. I started to think that opera audition panels should be asking for five arias—plus a Beatles tune.

No one brought in any songs by Frank Bridge, but he’ll be featured in the winter concert. Here’s one of his songs, 90 seconds of magic: “Goldenhair,” set to a poem by James Joyce. In this recording Peter Pears is at his best, and Benjamin Britten plays with the kind of fluidity that I only dream of. His knuckles sound as if they are made out of Crisco. I mean that as a compliment.


Gian Carlo Menotti: Steal me, sweet thief

from Christine Taylor Price:

“Steal me, sweet thief” has been one of my favorite arias since I heard it about 2 years ago. I only started singing it recently because my usual English aria, “No Word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s opera The Rakes Progress (another must-listen), wasn’t quite doing it for me anymore. “Steal me” is one of the only well known arias by Menotti. From his opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, written for radio in 1939, it was extremely well-recieved by the American audience which, made it easy for Menotti to start paving his own way as an opera composer in America.

Laetitia is the character who sings “Steal me”. She is Miss Todd’s housekeeper and is a young, beautiful, sparky girl who just wants to be loved, so when Bob shows up looking for a place to stay, Laetitia convinces Miss Todd to give him the guest room. They soon realize that Bob is a thief so, of course, Miss Todd wants to get rid of him but Laetitia has been falling in love with him and again convinces her to let him stay. Day-dreaming, Laetita sings steal me, sweet thief, wishing her life would start before she grows old and gray.

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