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NYFOS@Caramoor in Review

A quick post-concert report as I bid farewell to this beautiful week. Overview: both shows went extremely well for the cast, who delivered the goods. The Sunday run took place in a black box theater that needed to be borrowed for the occasion due to renovations at Caramoor. It was an especially dry hall, a challenge to be overcome. Yet the show went smoothly and faultlessly. The in-depth work we’d done on the songs gave the concert the kind of strength and subtlety I had hoped for. “Crossroads,” which covers the gamut from the arty to the off-color, runs the risk of coming off as either over-refined or vulgar or both. I was happy to see that the program played with sure-footed elegance in Katonah. The big winners of the night were the German art songs, whose depth gave a warm conclusion to the free-wheeling playlist. Even people who don’t normally respond to Lieder told me that the Brahms, Strauss, and Schubert were especially moving. (Could it be that this rep should always be sung after songs about masturbation and gay cruising?)

Danny and I could barely hear the singers, an occupational hazard in our profession.  He rolled with it and played with superb elegance that afternoon, but I struggled. I wish I could add “and overcame it,” but not to my mind. This happens, too; one can’t always get the stars to align.

I couldn’t tell if the audience was on board with us or not—from where I sat I heard very little response, another hazard of spaces not designed for acoustic music. My heart goes out to the high schoolers who have to perform in that space all the time.  Quiet as the audience seemed, they had a very good afternoon and gave us an ovation-ette after the last song, i.e., a significant number of people stood up to clap, and they brought the cast back to the stage for an extra bow or two. In this context, that simple gesture indicated a triumph.

Tuesday at Merkin Hall was a more comfortable experience. The acoustic is warm, we had a pleasingly full hall, and the Manhattan public is always more vociferous than the more reserved Westchester crowd. I had had a day to get my act together, and I was saying my little mantras of positive thinking every time I heard my Inner Voice of Shame.

The show went quite well—the highs were even higher, though the cast made a few tiny mistakes in the rapid-fire numbers that they had never made. A few of them tried out some new ad-libs that I would have axed if I’d known about them in advance. But all in all it was an even finer performance: more musical flow in the French songs, more precision in the comedy, more shimmer in the German. We made a couple of crucial improvements in the staging and the song order. And everyone seemed to be in good voice, happy to be sinking into the comedy, drama, and sentiment of their songs in front of a very responsive audience. I’ll never forget the way the four voices joined at the end of the Fauré quartet, rising and falling with those beautiful harmonies like angels.

It was important to me to have at least a decent night at the Steinway. That is not always so easy at Merkin, where my primary challenge is a piano of voice-drowning loudness with an action so light that you can play wrong notes just looking at the keys too hard. I mustered every bit of technique, savvy, and juju I had. It didn’t exactly feel easy, but people told me I sounded good and I have chosen to believe them. Danny sailed through again with flying colors, of course.

Every residency is intense. Some are also rewarding. A few are pleasurable. This one was all three. I’ll miss the daily companionship of Devony Smith, Gina Perregrino, Philippe L’Espérance, Erik van Heyningen, and Danny Zelibor. But not for long. These are bonds that will last.



NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 5

My goals today were simple and clear: to get the second half of the show staged, and to see if I could persuade my hands to stop behaving like bouncers at a second-rate strip club. I took a little time by myself at the piano in the morning to deal with item number 2. I can’t say I had a major breakthrough but I did start to feel—and sound—more like myself. And that was a big relief. This kind of problem isn’t uncommon for me during projects like Vocal Rising Stars. No matter how much I prepare I inevitably backslide during the rehearsals, reverting to stopgaps and Hail-Mary simplifications over the course of the long days. And I usually plunge in every morning without taking any time to warm up. But at Caramoor there are two other brilliant pianists—Danny Zelibor and Michael Barrett—to cover the morning rehearsals while I did triage. The music is starting to flow again, and I should be fine for Sunday—as long as I continue to get my alone time at the 88s beforehand.

The second half of the show includes a section about philandering and a section about forgiveness. In life, philandering is quick while forgiving is a long-term proposition. But in our concert the songs about screwing around took a lot more time to stage, because they involve more comedy, more choreo, and more stage business. Our spirits remained pretty high most of the time, and if you ever need a doo-wop trio to back up a singer, may I recommend Devony Smith, Gina Perregrino, and Philippe L’Espérance who served brilliantly as The Pips to Erik von Heyningen’s Gladys Knight in “Do It Yourself.”

The sailing got a little rougher when we worked on “The Tennis Song” by Cy Coleman and David Zippel. In its original setting—the Broadway musical “City of Angels”—it’s a double-entendre come-on duet sung by a man and a woman. In our show, it’s a locker room encounter between two men, one of them experienced with gay encounters, and the other…game for something new. It’s a very well-written piece—David Z.’s lyrics are at the Cole Porter level—but the scene needs to be built carefully, as the guys check out each other’s interest and availability for a quickie.  Philippe was starting to get a little stressed out (“I’m just not quite sure what I’m doing!”) but eventually got the hang of the scene. (Perhaps I should change that metaphor.) However you do have to remind straight guys that a gay pickup is not like tackle football. At one point we told Philippe to tap Erik’s butt with his tennis racquet, and he let loose with a swing that would have made Pete Sampras proud. Everyone in the room jumped—except Erik.

IMG_5109At the end of the day we had just enough time to run the blocking for the first half. Neither Danny nor I went to the piano—this was to be a speed-through to review movement and stage placement. There followed 15 hysterically funny minutes in which the singers dropped to their knees, gesticulated to the stars, seduced one another, and philosophized as they blurted random cue lines. “VOICI L’HEURE!” “INGRATS!” “SAINT BERNARD!” “LORGNETTE!” They acted like Charlie Chaplin on amphetamines. As crazy as it looked (and I do hope someone caught this mêlée on video), it was reassuring to see that everyone remembered everything from yesterday. I know that Stephen, our director, was worried that the work might have gone up in smoke, since we don’t have a stage manager. At least we now know they can do Act I at 78 rpm. Tomorrow we’ll find out if they can do it at normal speeds.

Hear this complex story told through an intricate playlist at Love at the Crossroads
Sun, Mar 17 at 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tue, Mar 19 at 8pm at Merkin Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 2

One of the luxuries of the Vocal Rising Stars program is that I am encouraged to invite guest teachers in to work with the cast. But it wasn’t easy to locate the right people for this crazy multilingual program. In fact, I wasn’t even sure what I needed—should it be another musician, a director, an actor, a language coach? Early in February I had a few wonderful prospects on the hook, but they got other gigs and had to bow out. And then I remembered a very moving conversation I recently had with Bénédicte Jourdois in the Juilliard lobby. She is one of our French coaches at school, and she also works at lots of other places including the Met. I remembered that Paul Appleby held a special place in his heart for Bénédicte. Earning Paul’s respect is no light thing, and I also knew that the students at Juilliard adored working with her. I hesitated for about a day because we only had five French songs on the playlist…so would this be the best use of our time….? Then I remembered how eager I was to work with her and I thought: if she’s available, grab her for a session early in the week.

I knew Béné was a good person and a good coach. I just didn’t realize quite how good. First of all, she exudes enthusiasm and receptivity of a high order. Michael and I were treated to a healthy dose of this in the car ride up to Caramoor, and then we got some more Béné-charm in our non-French-rep morning session. She listened to German, Spanish, and American songs as if she were being presented with a four-star meal (and had some valuable things to say as well). I had no idea Béné was a Sondheim fan. What a treat to present her with two songs by him that she’d never heard before.

IMG_1115But when it came time to work on the French material Bénédicte sprang into action with a kind of joyous intensity I have seen in very few colleagues. Of course she corrected mistakes and imprecisions of pronunciation, something she does with amazing efficiency and clarity. But she also took us through the poems in some detail, explaining the nuances, examining the images, creating the atmosphere, embracing the romance. Most French diction teachers are obsessed with the vowels, which I admit are complex and subject to rigorous rules. But Béné is just as involved with the consonants, the way they propel you into the word and give the song its juice. I found that she strongly advocated some ideas I’d developed about French diction that I had worried were a bit outré. It’s not a foggy, misty string of vowels. It’s an energized, passionate language powered by sexy, liquid consonants. The real trick is to keep the vocal accent away from the downbeat—to caress the unaccented off-beat notes, what the French call the “accent d’insistance.” She was (appropriately enough) insistent about this idea all afternoon, and I was glad to be her cheerleader.

Bénédicte never played the songs, nor did she coach the music per se. Nothing explicit about tempo or balance or phrasing. And yet when the cast sang the pieces after she worked with them, the music was transformed. A Chausson duet that had seemed shapeless and earthbound was suddenly liquid gold—exalted and flowing. I felt it myself—I’d been struggling to get the damn song off the ground but it refused to do anything but waddle in mud. Suddenly Gina, Devony, and I were flying.

The real eye-opener was the work Béné did on that recalcitrant Fauré quartet. The first run was competent but somewhat clumsy, like four people without a common language trying to solve an equation. After Bénédicte took us through the poem—even with an interpretation I didn’t quite agree with—the cast sang it again. Suddenly they sounded as if Sir Simon Rattle had walked in and conducted them through it. Elegant lines swooped and dovetailed, the whole thing danced. I had grimly anticipated a long, damp session tomorrow in which we went through it section by section, beating the piece into submission until it sounded graceful. But Bénédicte’s poetic analysis and sheer force of personality brought out everyone’s natural musicianship. Magic.

I sensed that something important was going on, palpable but a little elusive. I was trying to wrap my mind around what was happening, and so was Gina. She suddenly stopped dead in her tracks and said, “Oh, I am having a breakthrough moment…it’s all comes from the poetry…sorry, I can’t really find words for it right now.”  I think she was a bit overwhelmed and more than a bit exhausted from two long work days. I hope she’ll explain it tomorrow. I too learned something today about my profession, and I hope I can put words on it tomorrow.

IMG_1103There was another magic moment today. We have a tradition that started in our third season, when our singers were having trouble hearing the piano in a Blitzstein quartet. I casually commented that the best place to hear the piano was on the floor right underneath the sounding board. Michael said, “Oh, great idea, why doesn’t everyone lie down under the piano, and we’ll do the piece again.” It was a success, and now we always have an under-the-piano moment during the week. Mikey brought it up today, saying we might do it on Thursday. But the cast said, “Why wait?” We were doing a difficult a cappella piece, “Eco” by a Spanish composer named Oltra, and there was a section that was not quite jelling. The four of them positioned themselves under the Steinway and started to sing. Suddenly the blend was heavenly, the fall-apart moment was tight, and time stopped. One of these years we’re actually going to perform a piece with everyone lying under the piano. Who knows, maybe this year?

Be inspired to your own breakthroughs at Love at the Crossroads
Sun, Mar 17 at 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tue, Mar 19 at 8pm at Merkin Hall (NYC)

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 2

A few years ago I got a request from the administration at Caramoor to add a fifth artist to the Vocal Rising Stars program: an apprentice pianist. I turned this over in my mind for a while, considering the pros and cons of sharing accompanying duties with yet another person. After all, we already had two pianists on board, Michael Barrett (henceforth to be known by his nickname, Mikey) and me. As I mulled and mulled, the gentle request turned into something more definitive: the program was now to include four singers and a pianist. Any questions?

The expansion turned into a success. We’ve had four superb musicians on board with us: Leeann Osterkamp, Chris Reynolds, Will Kelly, and Ho Jae Lee. Each of them proved to be a powerhouse with a strong personality. Of course the unseen advantage of having a live-in accompanist at Caramoor is that the singers can rehearse off-hours. (Not that I want them using up their vocal velvet in a 24/7 sing-off.)

But there are two tricky aspects of having a pianist in the Rising Stars mix. One is personal: I have to play a lot less every day, which keeps me fresher. But also means that I don’t have as much of a chance to settle into the piano. I arrive un-warmed-up, and I sometimes never get the engine running properly. My home piano-chair is at Caramoor for the week, so I can’t begin the process at home. Meanwhile the so-called apprentice pianists are playing all day and perhaps all evening.

But the trickiest part of the endeavor is the actual teaching. This year’s pianist is Adam Rothenberg, a very gifted musician with a world-class pair of hands. He has the whole program down cold, and plays everything with smooth aplomb. I respect him and don’t want to pull him down in any way.

But we are talking about songs I’ve known for decades, including pieces I first played when Watergate was in the news. For me, they contain crevices and crannies and gleaming caves and love letters and flashes of defiance followed by the softening of regret. How do I convey the topography of the song, not just the map?

With Ho Jae, I once played the intro to John Musto’s “Litany” and gave him my verbal soundtrack to the nuances of the piece, an internal monologue that I didn’t even know I had inside me until I heard myself say it out loud.

It’s a little different with Adam. He has a very unified approach to each song, extremely respectful of the score, every marking observed, every tempo indication followed. It’s so valid and so beautifully executed that I hate to disturb it. The problem is that I sometimes understand the song—and its journey—in a very different way. Do I ask him to mimic me, do I tell him “Take time here, make a bigger bar line between these two phrases, make this chord softer”—the color-by-numbers approach of so many teachers in master classes? I find the idea a little repulsive. It takes away his autonomy as an artist.

Yet I am not satisfied with his gorgeous rendition, its perfect complexion and elegant coif. It is too perfect. For me, it still needs more nuance and sentiment. So—taking my life in my hands—I say, “Let me show you how I do it. Just so you can hear and decide.” Then I make my usual excuses about how it’s going to be a little messy, I haven’t touched this song in 10 days, my dog ate my fourth and fifth pages, I’m not warmed up, I’m having male menopause…and then I play him the song I’ve known for almost 50 years.

And yes, it is a little messy here and there. I ain’t no Juilliard pianist. But I feel my own life-essence flowing into the piano, I hear my own heart making music, I am indulgent to my occasional clumsiness. I hear the nooks and crannies, the gold and cobalt, the sweet and tough. And I am aware of the sleek ease of a pianist in his early 20s, and the weighty life-experience of a pianist in his mid-60s. I then tell Adam: “You do not need to do this my way. I just wanted you to hear what I do—instead of pushing you around phrase by phrase.”

I can’t wait to hear what he does tomorrow.

unnamed (2)There were many beauties in today’s work. Madison and Adam romped through a ferociously difficult modern song by Huw Watkins, Matt poured out an amazing amount of gorgeous sound in his Britten song, Greg honored the composer Jonathan Dove with his deeply sexy, X-rated reading of “Between your sheets you soundly sleep,” and Kayleigh found a stunningly vulnerable timbre for her jazz piece (a John Dankworth Shakespeare setting). She took all the Mozart-Handel makeup off her voice, and revealed the most sensuous alto sax.

At lunch we had a visit from the actual Queen of the Vocal Rising Stars, Eileen Schwab, whose family endowed the program. I adore Eileen and treasure her devotion to song. It’s always a red-letter day when she shows up.

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.

NYFOS@Caramoor: Day 3

Thursday is usually the most intense day—it’s the designated time for everyone to be off book, i.e., memorized. But today—Wednesday, usually a frolic in the sandbox—turned out to be a strenuous day of contact sports. Some of this had to do with the schedule: Marco was to join us in the afternoon, but he could only get there at 3:40. It was our last coaching day with him—yes, he’ll be back for more rehearsals and he’ll play the performances with us, but then he’ll be in his role purely as flautist. So we had a lot to cover in a short period, and that meant the day ended with three hours of extremely concentrated work on all the flute stuff and all the Spanish stuff.

Christine created a bit of magic today, the kind of thing that can only happen at a place like Caramoor. We were working on her Lecuona song, “Quiero ser hombre.” It is somewhere midway between a cabaret song and an art song, with a poem by the Uruguayan feminist Juana de Ibarbourou. She talks of how she’d like to be a man—so that she could have any kind of career she wanted, she could go out walking on her own, she could wander the earth as she pleased. Latin American women did not have a lot of choices in the 1940s, and very little freedom of movement in those pre-liberation days.

unnamed-6Christine has known the song for a little while now, and it was sounding good. She understood what it meant, her Spanish was very clear and amazingly authentic—good, solid work. But Michael was not sold. “Christine, the song has this descending figure, three-note groups that snake down after an upward phrase. There’s something…what’s the word for it…it has a name…oh, I don’t know. There’s something about that kind of writing…” I was a little puzzled. So was Christine. What was he getting at? “How should I do it?” Christine asked. Michael paused. “Actually, I don’t know. But you do. Figure it out—there is something to dig out of that phrase. You have the answer, not me. Go find it.” Another pause. Then Christine said something I wasn’t expecting: “Thank you.” What did she mean, I wondered? Thank you, I guessed, for not condescending to me, for trusting that I have a musical brain, that I have instincts and sensitivities of my own. It was International Women’s Day, and we were celebrating in our way.

Michael’s request was not the kind of direction I would have given a singer. But something happened: the whole song opened up. All of a sudden Christine was singing about life, and freedom, and being a woman, and wanting something. What sounded to me like musical nit-picking led straight to the Holy Grail. Everyone felt it. Hannah actually leapt to her feet and applauded. I thought I saw tears in Christine’s eyes.

Everyone, in fact, rehearsed as if their lives depended on it. I took the day to get closer to pianist Ho Jae Kim, pulling him in to play four-hand piano with me, molding his phrasing, balancing the sonorities of his two hands. He is such a surprising musician. I imagine all this material is pretty new for him, but I nicknamed him Ho Jae O’Lee after he played his Irish song with the eloquence of an old bard. He’s come up with some fabulous results in Cuban music too. Ho Jae has a tremendous musical instinct, and when his ear, nervous system, and hands coalesce—when he grasps what the music is, what it needs—the results take my breath away.

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)

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)

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org