Widely unknown but celebrated by NYFOS, Marc Blitzstein just might be my all-time favorite 20th century song composer. Yes—you read that correctly. I like Blitzstein more than Bernstein, the Beatles, Britten, Barber, and any other 20th century composer that starts with a Bravo or an Alpha, Charlie, or Delta for that matter. My “Songs in the Key of Steven Blier” binder is filled with Blitzstein songs—seven, in fact, as of my last count.
I love Blitzstein’s music for so many reasons but paramount among these is this human-like, real world quality that I find in almost all of his songs. Listening to his music feels like an extended respite from everyday life, an opportunity to laugh or a chance to consider a new perspective. I often turn to Blitzstein’s songs when I need a piece for a recital that feels approachable. As an example, I immediately turned to Blitzstein when asked to return to my old high school in Tennessee for a performance during assembly. Of course, I found room for some Schubert too, but I knew that while they might oooh and ahhh over the virtuosic music and totally foreign language being sung at them, there was no way I was going to get a group of two hundred, teenage guys to sit up and listen without offering them a line or two of Blitzstein.
While I consider so much of what Blitzstein composed to be so effective in its simplicity, he was quite the prodigious musician. By the time he was seven he had played almost all of the Mozart piano concertos. As a student at Curtis, he studied with Alexander Siloti (a renowned pedagogue and student of Franz Liszt) and at twenty-one, made his professional concerto debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Liszt’s E flat piano concerto. From what I have read about Blitzstein’s life, those who knew him well saw someone that was consistently unsatisfied with being good at just one thing —he had to excel at everything. In fact, many of his professors at Curtis believed him to be far more naturally gifted than fellow classmates Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Kind of a shocking thing to take in on a first read!
Unfortunately, Blitzstein’s obsessive, perfectionistic attributes led him much further down a path of frustrations and failures more than it did a path of success. There were many times that he would write a show, only to see it get two or three performances due to his obsessive re-writing all the way through the tech process and up into opening night. And sometimes he just had terrible luck—such as the time a set piece fell and killed one of the actors at the start of one one of his newest shows. Many called him a failure, but I just see him as so utterly human—a lifelong artist that had his fair share of bad luck and detrimental habits but never stopped trying to get his music and ideas out into the world.
I first started singing Blitzstein songs the summer after my freshman year of college. Steve had emailed me a bunch of possibilities after a coaching one day and I proceeded to learn them all ahead of a summer at the Seagle Music Colony in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. None of the staff at Seagle had heard of Blitzstein or his songs but I began to get frequent requests to return to them again and again for audition classes or donor functions.
Today’s song of the day features the Blitzstein song I hold most dear—”Stay in my Arms“. The song is a beautiful love ballad which Blitzstein, although gay, wrote for his wife Eva Goldbeck who at the time was suffering from an illness that would eventually take her life. In it, he pleads for her to get better, to stay with him. What I love most about this song is the timelessness of its message. In our world that is far from peaceful, that struggles with achieving justice and building understanding across differences—we need a song like “Stay in my Arms” to remind us to stick close to those we love most. To cling tightly. To keep fighting for what is important. To carry on.
Today’s recording? Steven Blier and William Sharp, of course.
And as you listen, you must read the beautiful lyrics by Mr. Blitzstein himself. They are really quite special.
In this great city where will I find one peaceful, pretty spot where noise is not?
A bit of quiet, untouched by all the hectic riot would help things a lot.
Our temples automatic – science reveals.
Our pace is acrobatic – life moves on wheels.
Here’s my admission –
I haven’t very much ambition for the mad existence of our time.
Let’s just be old fashioned.
Let’s just be lazy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.
My most dear; come close dear.
Don’t be afraid to.
My hands were made to shield you from alarm.
What’s all the shooting for?
Where are they rushing?
Whom are they rooting for?
Whom are they crushing?
Forget them or let them grow dim and hazy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.
Let’s lie here
year by year midfield and daisy.
The world’s gone crazy
so stay in my arms.
While millions of millions go wildly prancing.
I’ll be romancing a song of your charms.
They dance a dance that kills – mad and defenseless.
Such jumping Jacks and Jills.
It’s all so senseless.
I love you.
You love me.
That much is plain, dear.
The world’s insane, dear:
So stay in my Arms!
Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer will be featured on the Nov. 19 NYFOS concert at Merkin Hall. Steve Blier and I had our very first collaboration at Tully Hall in a Blitzstein celebration about 35 years ago. It cemented my friendship with Steve, and helped us see a lot of things about songs concerts in a different light. Some years later Steve was able to make a beautiful recording of many of Blitzstein’s best songs. One of my favorites is “Penny Candy”. It comes from No For An Answer. Here is the amazing and characterful William Sharp with Steve Blier at the piano.
Michael and I both had a hankering to revive NYFOS’ tradition of presenting rare theater pieces in concert versions. Kurt Weill’s “Silverlake” was a feature of the last NYFOS@Juilliard evening, and the three songs we did whetted my appetite for more. It is extremely unlikely that New Yorkers will be seeing a staged version any time soon, and the material seemed uncannily apt for the current political moment. Michael had his eye on Marc Blitzstein’s “No For an Answer,” whose songs have periodically graced our programs over the years.
Each of these works was stillborn, with just a couple of performances at the time of their creation. The Nazis shut down “Silverlake” and pronounced Weill an enemy of the state. He fled the country. Blitzstein, on the other hand, mainly had himself to blame for the three-show run of “No For an Answer.” He couldn’t let go of the piece, tinkering with the script season after season, waiting for the perfect venue, determined to have the perfect cast. Eventually the war intervened and his musical no longer captured the Zeitgeist as it would have three or four years earlier. In addition, the Mecca Temple where it played was plagued with a slew of building violations, and the city government shut the production down. “No For an Answer” garnered respectful reviews, and it featured the Broadway debut of a promising performer—Carol Channing. But its moment had passed. Blitzstein had to content himself with a succès d’estime. Soon after, he was shipped off to London to serve in the Army.
Here’s one of the songs from the show: “In the Clear,” originally sung by Clara, wife of the wealthy, alcoholic Paul. She is philosophical and perceptive, he is idealistic and somewhat belligerent. Here she gently rebukes her husband, reminding him that he can’t simply be “full of promise” as he nears the age of 30. I know of very few other songs that address this delicate subject: the uncomfortable moment when a young adult realizes he can no longer coast on his potential.
The performance: William Sharp, with me at the piano.
This program takes its inspiration from an opera — Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte — and a movie, Max Ophuls’ La ronde, which was based on the hugely controversial play by Arthur Schnitzler, Reigen. Both works are about the disruptive interplay of love and lust, fidelity and libido, id and superego. In our concert two couples meet and fall in love, but the honeymoon fades. Soon the guys feel trapped and the women feel betrayed, and then all hell breaks loose. The men experiment (including a fling with one another), while the girls drop all inhibitions and indulge their sexual whims. Wild oats sown, the four come warily back together with more experience, more wisdom, more doubts — and fuller hearts.
Each of the four chapters demanded its own language and musical genre. The couples fall in love to French romantic art song, which evokes that wonderful moment of infatuation when life sparkles with promise, the spirit shimmers, and the words lovers exchange are perhaps more beautiful for the way they sound than for what they actually mean. But when that moment wears off and reality sets in, things suddenly get more literal. “But you said,” “But I never meant,” “I just can’t stand…!” Suddenly we go from wings of song to the language of negotiation, recrimination, and comedy: English. English is also the best language for Act III, “Philandering.” After all, you don’t want to miss any of the juicy details. But German song seemed right for the closing section. Lieder offered the most beautiful, complex examples of mature love tinged with loneliness and betrayal. For a reflective coda, I drew on a Spanish song by the Catalan composer Manuel Oltra set to a Lorca poem. Once again life vibrates with possibilities— and memories.
Tonight’s playlist careens from the sublime to the ridiculous. Love is at once the highest expression of humanity and an unruly biological urge, a blissful merging and a litigious, daily negotiation. All of our composers and lyricists are exposing the exalted, messy truth about love — Schubert and Irving Berlin, Fauré and Jason Robert Brown, Brahms and Ed Kleban. A few of the composers, classical icons like Saint-Saëns and Strauss, won’t require biographical sketches for experienced concert-goers. But there are a some lesser-known pieces in the program about which you may be curious. Below: a quick guide to those recherché numbers.
The two Stephen Sondheim songs are comparative rarities from this often-sung composer. “Two Fairy Tales” was written for the two ingénues in A Little Night Music, Hendrik and Anne. Its dazzling wit shed a bit of light on their characters, but it did nothing to advance the story in Act II when the action needs the most velocity. Sondheim slyly recycled “Two Fairy Tales” as an instrumental piece: it became the tedious piano exercise played by Desirée’s daughter Frederika.
“Country House” comes from the 1987 London production of Follies. Sondheim and his book writer William Goldman made a conscious attempt to add more comedy to their brilliant but problematic musical. To that end they tweaked the libretto and added three new songs including “Country House,” sung by the wealthy, unhappily married Phyllis and Ben. In the 1971 Broadway script they had dialogue scenes but they never sang together. Sondheim and Goldman eventually withdrew the London version of Follies as a failed experiment, preferring the disquieting original. Still, this song is prime Sondheim. Smart, psychologically astute, and ultimately quite touching, “Country House” shows us a side of Phyllis and Ben Stone that makes them more sympathetic and vulnerable. And only Hugo Wolf can match Sondheim for turning perfectly inflected line-readings into melody.
Vernon Duke’s brilliance as a songwriter was matched by his bad luck and bad judgment in the theater. The Gershwin brothers took Duke, then a Russian emigré named Vladimir Dukelsky, under their wing in the 1930s, and his early projects went well. “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York” were instant classics, and his 1940 Broadway show Cabin in the Sky was a rousing success. But thereafter his luck turned, and he produced a string of failures — the last of them, Sweet Bye and Bye never even made it out of Philadelphia previews, and was such an out-and-out disaster that Duke vowed to leave the theater forever. He eventually returned to Broadway in 1952 with Two’s Company, a revue starring Bette Davis and choreographed by the brilliant, tyrannical Jerome Robbins. Duke recycled a few of the best songs from Sweet Bye and Bye, including “Just Like a Man.” Duke’s vast songwriting skills are on full display: a patrician ability to evoke sophisticated world-weariness, and a harmonic inventiveness that begins in the song’s verse, an opportunity most other composers throw away.
Alas, Duke was defeated once again. The fly in the ointment was the show’s star, Bette Davis, a breathtakingly unmusical performer. Her grim, leaden rendition of the opening number, “Turn Me Loose on Broadway,” gives new meaning to the phrase “two left feet.” (You can check it out on YouTube if you’re brave.) She claimed illness during the run of the show — her croaking rendition of “Just Like a Man” on the original cast album certainly doesn’t sound healthy. Good or bad, Bette Davis was a huge box office draw, and when she left Two’s Company after three months the show closed.
Marc Blitzstein is most famous for his left-wing agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock, and his classic translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. One doesn’t usually associate this serious artist with froth like “Modest Maid.” The song was written during World War II when Blitzstein was stationed in London working for the United States Army. His job was to promote cultural ties between Britain and the States. What better way to do so than to write a bawdy song for the great English comedienne Beatrice Lillie?
Alas, she never performed it. But twelve years later it became a showstopper for Charlotte Rae, who met Blitzstein when she played Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny at the Theater de Lys. Blitzstein’s lyrics were probably inspired by the opportunities for outdoor sex during the blackouts in wartime London — a boon not just for “modest maids” but gay men like Blitzstein.
Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years had only a short off-Broadway run in 2002, but it has become a beloved work for the current generation of music theater fans and performers. It tells the story of a failed marriage with a unique narrative twist: the heroine’s songs start at the end of the relationship and move backwards to their first date, while the leading man’s plot line starts at the beginning of their love and ends with his leaving his wife. The structure of the musical is a beautiful metaphor for the inability of this young couple to synchronize their lives. Brown’s songs, especially those for his hero, Jamie (a successful writer and clearly a stand-in for Brown himself ) have startlingly vivid lyrics and a lively musical groove. For me, The Last Five Years shows Jason Robert Brown at his very best and “A Miracle Would Happen” is one of my many favorites from this show.
Everyone knows Ed Kleban’s work, even if they don’t know his name: he wrote the lyrics for the 1975 blockbuster A Chorus Line. He had a number of other musicals in the pipeline but they never came to fruition. Kleban died in 1987 at age 48, leaving a scattering of songs and unfinished projects. One of them was a musical called Warhol, the source for “Do It Yourself.” I first heard this song at a benefit for the Manhattan Theater Club in 1974, when the now-venerable MTC had just finished its second season. Bob Balaban (of Waiting for Guffman fame) was the lead singer, with Kleban and writer/producer Richard Maltby, Jr. filling in as backup chorus. Ed promised to get me a copy but fate intervened. Thirty-three years later his longtime companion, Linda Kline, finally sent me the music for a piece that had haunted my memory for decades.
Even Britten specialists don’t tend to know the duet “Underneath the Abject Willow,” which received a premiere at London’s Wigmore Hall in December 1936. Its poet, W. H. Auden, and its composer, Benjamin Britten, had become artistic collaborators and close friends the year before, and they continued to work on films (through the G.P.O. Film Unit), song cycles (On This Island and Our Hunting Fathers), and operas (Paul Bunyan) for another six years before their paths diverged. Britten was initially somewhat cowed by Auden’s keen, articulate intelligence; it took him some time to feel that he was the intellectual equal of his friend. He was also far less sexually adventurous and experienced than Auden, who wrote “Underneath the Abject Willow” as a way of encouraging the rather repressed Britten to enjoy his youth and accept himself as a gay man. Britten turns Auden’s poem into a breezy three-movement suite of dance tunes that lightly mock and taunt, and ends with Britten’s musical equivalent of a kick in the pants.
The poem for Schubert’s Licht und Liebe comes from a play by Matthäus von Collin, The Death of Duke Frederick the Valiant. As the title character thinks about happier times in his past, he hears this poem sung by two voices passing in the forest. The music probably dates from 1822 — no autograph survives — and is reminiscent of Schubert’s operatic works from that time in his life. Schubert may have lacked the theatrical skills to create successful music drama, but few can match his ability to suggest subtle, shifting gradations of emotion, or portray the human heart in all its strength and vulnerability. In three minutes Schubert evokes love’s healing light and its ability to wound, simply by juxtaposing two contrasting rhythmic patterns, dipping suddenly into the minor mode, dropping briefly into recitative, and returning to the opening theme using overlapping vocal lines that allow the music to flower.
Manuel Oltra is probably the least familiar of tonight’s classical composers. He was a Catalan musician in the lineage of NYFOS favorites Eduardo Toldrà, Frederic Mompou, and Narcís Bonet. Like his fellow Catalan composers, he prized simplicity and lyricism, and shared with them a beautiful sense of musical space. Oltra casts a spell using refined, spare musical materials — a delicate watercolorist of sound.
Eco was the first song I chose for tonight’s concert, even though at that point I really didn’t know exactly what story we would be telling. The music startled me with its beauty, and so did the brief poem by García Lorca. Its nostalgia for a perfect shared moment, bathed in a combination of warmth and coldness, seemed the perfect conclusion to any story about love. The poem became even more resonant as I found out a bit more about the meaning of “nardo,” that mysterious “spikenard plant” mentioned by Lorca. Spikenard is known more commonly in this country as valerian, and is a traditional flower at Mexican weddings. It has large white buds shaped like spheres, which is why Lorca compares them to the moon. “Nard” is also mentioned in the Bible, where it figures in the Song of Solomon, and is used to anoint the head and feet of Jesus. “Nardo” carries with it a sense of deep reverence and the holy consecration of marriage.
I admit it: Cy Coleman and Gabriel Fauré aren’t the kind of artists you’d expect to see on the same musical quilt. Yet all the disparate, brilliant voices in tonight’s program understood the power of love, and each one advances the story in his own way. If Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the heroines of Cosí fan tutte, sang art songs, I doubt they’d let loose with “Modest Maid,” and I doubt that their swains Ferrando and Guglielmo would be sparring with the “Tennis Duet.” But this is the age of Hamilton. Let’s allow our two modern couples to duke it out with the full psychological and social artillery of the twenty-first century. And afterwards, we can discuss who went home with whom.
This is our tenth anniversary at Caramoor—which means it’s my eleventh season as Artistic Director of the Vocal Rising Stars Program. I look forward to these residencies with a mixture of anticipation and fear. The work is intense, and the week’s success depends a lot on the chemistry of the cast. Not only do they have to make music together, but they have to live together. Inevitably I know some of the artists better than others, so I have to rely on instinct and faith.
It was a relief to feel the good vibes in the room when Michael Barrett and I arrived this morning to start rehearsal. Devony Smith, Gina Pellegrino, Philippe L’Espérance, Erik van Heyningen, and pianist Danny Zelibor already seemed like a smoothly functioning machine. They’d had a chance to do some work before Mikey and I got there, and they plunged right into Stephen Sondheim’s “Two Fairy Tales” for us, a tricky duet I’ve turned into an even trickier quartet. They pretty much nailed it the first time, and managed to make me laugh twice. Their voices blended beautifully in the Fauré quartet “Madrigal,” though I wanted the piece at a much faster clip than what they showed us. They’d obviously heard the same performances of it on Spotify that I’d listened to, four dismaying renditions that turned it into a dirge whereas I want it to sound like the prelude to an orgy. Turns out that my crew did too, and apparently it’s vastly easier to sing that way.
The program we’re working on is called Love at the Crossroads. It tells an age-old story: two couples meet, woo, and marry, then quarrel and philander. At the end, they reunite, though it’s hard to say which of the relationships really has survived the damage. They romance each other in French music; they quarrel and cheat in English; and they try to reconcile in German. The music ranges from Fauré, Brahms, and Schubert to Irving Berlin, Jason Robert Brown, and Marc Blitzstein. It’s a show that will need a lot of flexibility, delicacy, and sheer chutzpah.
Luckily nothing seems to faze this group of singers. And I am always fascinated to understand their perspective on material that is new to them, but has been part of my sensibility for decades. This afternoon I had to analyze the charm of an early Fauré song, the irony of a Jason Robert Brown R&B parody, and the sweaty romance of a Saint-Saëns duet. Style is a hard thing to articulate. I could show some of it from the piano, but I had to explain some of it verbally. Ultimately it’s about submitting to the will of the music and letting it seduce you—entering the spirit of the song, not judging the characters from a purely contemporary point of view. Every song asks three questions: what is it now, what was it when it was new, and what will it be for all eternity? The world changes, but art still reflects and refracts the truth. And sometimes it’s helpful to think about what the song meant to its original audiences.
Devony was wrestling with Vernon Duke’s “Just Like a Man.” In this piece, a woman laments that her boyfriend has left her—even though he was constantly thoughtless and unkind. “I am having more trouble with this than with anything.” “You ARE?” I asked, with disbelief. It’s always struck me as truthful, witty, and perfectly funny-sad. “Well, yes, because it’s so against my world view.” I took a moment to understand. “Ohhh, I get it, because she’s addicted to this guy who treats her badly.” “Yes!” My mind went into overdrive—how do I get this very talented modern woman to embody a song written in the late 1940s? “But Devony, don’t you see, it’s totally against her world view too! She hates herself for being this way. She can’t believe she’s selling herself so short.” Silence. “Do you get it…?” Silence. “Oh my god, yes, wow, thank you. Let’s try it again.” And there was the character—rueful, bamboozled by the human condition, and a slave to her sexual attraction in spite of herself.
I am told this still happens in 2019.
In late 2017, Michael and I were busy trying to finalize the 2018–2019 NYFOS season. We had settled on the W. C. Handy project, and we were thinking about celebrating a famous poet on a later evening. (That poet turned out to be García Lorca, featured in our April 24 program.) But the third show remained a mystery. Then I heard the December NYFOS Next concert down at Elebash Hall. That program was devoted to Leonard Bernstein and other composers who had been influenced by him, and it included Daniel Sabzghabaei’s At the Door. I was transfixed by Daniel’s music, filled with the fascinating sonorities in the piano—including the visual frisson of seeing the piano lid raised all the way to 90 degrees, functioning as the barrier between the lovers—and an imaginative, daring use of the human voice. I told Michael, “We have got to bring that music to our mainstage series. Everyone needs to hear Daniel’s—what is it, a cantata?” At first we thought of pairing At the Door with other stories of thwarted lovers, picking up on the work’s story. But we saw a more interesting possibility, something to address our current national quandary about welcoming people of other nationalities into our country. Daniel is Persian-American, and At the Door is set to a poem in Farsi. NYFOS has ventured far afield in its 31-year history—a couple of years ago we did a song in Zulu. But it was time to open our borders even further, and Daniel Sabzghabaei proved to be our passport.
The debate on immigration to America was in the headlines when we first discussed tonight’s program and, as we predicted, the debate has continued with full-blown xenophobia on the extreme right, and conciliatory entry quotas on the other side. America was once proud to be a melting pot. Suddenly we are being told that the national food is to be Wonder Bread. To shed some light on the issue, we decided to celebrate a group of new American citizens and first-generation composers who work and reside in the U.S. Our roster includes professors at distinguished universities and award-winning performers: Brazilian-American, Chinese-American, Persian-American, and Puerto Rican (culturally hyphenated, if not technically). All of them are active in the ongoing development of our nation’s music, character, and ethos. Their musical voices span two generations, and draw deeply from their varied geographic and cultural origins. Tonight we are proud to celebrate their work as we revel in the new sonorities and rhythms they bring to American music. We look forward, with some hope, to a day when artists from everywhere might have the freedom to work wherever they like, and be welcomed with open arms in America.
—Steven Blier, with Michael Barrett
Elementos (Elements) (2010)
Music by Clarice Assad / Text by Daniel Basilio
All the songs in ELEMENTOS were born out of some kind of personal pain: pain that turns into introspection or fuel for change, heartbreak giving way to happiness, or heartache forcing us to make life-decisions. Written between 1998 and 2010 and conceived with an operatic female voice in mind (though I had never met an opera singer when I sketched the first tune), they were just a way of coping with life. I left them in a drawer along with many other pieces, but I was thankful I’d saved them when I met lyricist Daniel Basilio. Basilio, inspired by the stories, wrote words to draw the connections between human emotions and the four elements: earth, fire, water and air.
They do not appear in chronological order. I began humming “Esconderijo,” the finale one day, when I was about 20 years old, when things felt just right after a long dark period. At 26, I wrote “Maré de Água Viva,” the water movement, a painful realization that life was made up of permanent change. “Flor de Lã” and “Fogaréu” I wrote at 32, during a confusing time of loss and fear. Writing the music eventually set things into motion, forcing an imaginary bridge-burning after a wounding experience.
In 2016, the San Antonio-based SOLI ensemble commissioned a chamber version of this piece and invited me to perform with them. It was a great experience and began a beautiful collaboration between us. But tonight— so many years later—will be the first time these songs come to life the way I had first imagined them—for mezzo-soprano and piano.
Three Chinese Love Songs (1988)
Traditional Chinese Folk Poetry / Translation to English by Bright Sheng
Three Chinese Love Songs was requested by Seiji Ozawa as one of the commissioned works for the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 77th birthday at Tanglewood in August 1988. Prior to this, I had just finished a large orchestral work for the New York Chamber Symphony entitled H’un (Lacerations): In Memorium 1966–1976, a work about the “Cultural Revolution” in China. I composed H’un around the interval of the minor second instead of using any kind of melody or tune. Since it is about a tragic period in China, the work sounded harsh and dissonant, creating the drama and expressiveness I wished to evoke.
At the same time, the inevitable call for the search of tonality in my writing, though not necessarily in the sense of triads, was increasing daily. I needed to write something quite different. The Tanglewood commission was an opportunity that enabled me to fulfill this need and to explore other compositional ideas. Setting Chinese folk songs seemed natural and appropriate.
Three Chinese Love Songs was premiered on August 26th, 1988, on a program entitled “Tributes in Song to Leonard Bernstein” at Tanglewood. The performers were Lisa Saffer, soprano, Barton Fine, viola, and Yehudi Wyner, piano.
At The Door (2017)
This setting of Rumi’s Ghazal 436 is an intimate scene for high voice, medium voice, and piano which focuses on the bond between the the Lover and the Belovéd; a tenant which pervades not only much of Rumi’s output, but many of his Sufi contemporaries and is a focal point of Sufism as a whole. In this mystical sect of Islam, the relationship between the Lover and the Belovéd is a deep and extremely personal one for each of us. We, as the Lover, all desire oneness with the Belovéd yet are consistently unable to achieve this true unison of body, spirit, consciousness, psyche, and self. The Belovéd takes on different meanings for each of us; however, what remains consistent is the desire for oneness with that which is unattainable; the Belovéd is the amalgamation of intimacy. In this scene, these two figures converse separated by a door, the Lover requesting entry to the Belovéd’s abode, and the Belovéd questioning the Lovers intentions. While the two consistently come very close to each other, a true unification is never achieved, only brief spurts of fleeting sensuality and passionate intimacy abound, the ever present Door separating the two incessantly, the oneness constantly fleeting into the ether.
—Daniel Reza Sabzghabaei
33 Suenos (33 Dreams) (2018) American Premiere
Music by Roberto Sierra (b. 1953)
Poetry by Juan Carlos Garvayo / Translation to English by D. P. Snyder
During one of my visits to Spain, Juan Carlos Garvayo, my friend and collaborator of many years, handed me a book titled 33 Sueños with his name inscribed as the poet. For over two decades, he has premiered and performed many of my works but I had no idea he wrote poetry. I took the volume back with me to the USA, and once I had the chance to glance through it, I immediately decided to set all the poems for baritone and piano. Juan Carlos’ poetry immediately spoke to me; the oneiric aspect of the poems connected with my music—a term the often appears in my works is “like a dream”. The writing process was vertiginous, as one poem led to the next, in fact as in a dream.
I was Lenny’s assistant with Michael when we prepared the premiere of this set of eight songs for mezzo-soprano, baritone and piano four-hands. “Nachspiel” is the last one which has no text and all singers (and pianists, and perhaps the audience) humming together. It is so exquisitely written, touching and beautiful.
“Nachspiel” from Arias and Barcarolles by Leonard Bernstein
NYFOS offers a week of cold-weather songs as we settle into the winter season.
From NYFOS’s recording Unquiet Peace: The Lied Between the Wars, Cyndia Sieden sings “Schlechtes Wetter” by Richard Strauss with Steven Blier at the piano.
For many years, Michael Barrett and I discussed doing a program devoted to the blues, that quintessential American genre. But we were never sure how to tackle such a broad topic. Then our friend, the musicologist and early blues scholar Elliott Hurwitt proposed that we devote an evening to W. C. Handy, and this magically opened up the long-sought path. I’d known about Handy—famous as “The Father of the Blues”—since my boyhood. One of his songs was in some anthology I pored over as a child—could it have been The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs? I found his music sweet and old-timey, redolent of straw hats, picnics, bandstands on summer days.
My early impressions of Handy’s music weren’t exactly wrong, but my recent immersion into his life and work has revealed so much more. He emerged out of the minstrel era, a complex entertainment that simultaneously promulgated racial stereotypes (for white audiences) and mocked them (for African-American audiences). Then, when Handy was in the early years of his professional career, ragtime took the world by storm. Its aggressive use of syncopation proved irresistible to listeners on both sides of the Atlantic, a revolution in popular song as significant as rap and hip-hop in recent years.
W. C. Handy was no exception to rag-mania, and you can hear how he embraced it in one of his early pieces, the iconic “Memphis Blues” . He himself labeled the piece “a southern rag.” Over a lazy two-step accompaniment, Handy writes a tune that bobs and weaves, occasionally hitting the strong beat but most often darting off the accented bass notes. A bit later in the song, Handy incorporates one of his two major innovations: the main strain of the piece has a melody of twelve-bars. Ragtime—and indeed almost all of American popular song before and after—typically uses a 16- or 32-bar structure. But a classic blues melody is foreshortened like a Manx cat, and you can hear this now-familiar model when the lyric launches into “They got a fiddler there…” The twelve-bar structure isn’t obvious—I had to get the sheet music out and count the measures—but the tune is indeed four bars shorter than the classic popular song melody.
Still, a modern listener accustomed to BB King, Robert Johnson, or Muddy Waters would be hard pressed to identify “The Memphis Blues” as a blues at all. It has more of a sweet Scott Joplin aura. The achier sound that a person might be expecting emerged most notably three years later in Handy’s most famous song, “St. Louis Blues.” For one thing, the twelve-bar structure is more recognizable because it is used in a more traditional way: a twice-repeated lyric followed by an answering line, the gold standard for blues tunes (think “Shake Rattle and Roll”).
But the magic moment comes at the eighth note of the opening melody. That’s where you’ll hear W. C. Handy’s other innovation, the blue note: “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down”—a flatted note that carries the soulful essence of sadness and catharsis intrinsic to this genre. Next to “St. Louis Blues,” Joplin’s rags sound like John Philip Sousa after too much coffee—or maybe Schubert on acid. They jab crazily at the beats of the measure, but their harmonic language is pure and classic.
Handy didn’t invent the blue note, nor did he think up the twelve-bar song form on his own. He took his inspiration from the street musicians and itinerant players he heard in the south. Their twangy, sliding way of bending a tune became part of Handy’s musical vocabulary, and he was able to write down the unique features of their folk melodies and phrases on music paper. Turning these tropes into songs that appealed to Americans across the racial divide, he created—some would say “commercialized”—something new in American music. Forty years later, Elvis Presley would do the same thing, this time from the other side of the tracks.
I respect Handy as much for his business enterprise and his ethical character as I do for his music. Founding his own publishing company, he was able to promote the music of other African-American artists. Later on he focused on arranging spirituals for both choir and solo singer. And he always lent his voice to freedom-fighting causes. He did not always have good business sense, and frequently needed to be bailed out of financial crises. But they were generally born of generosity and an optimistic view of the world. And Handy was blessed by two business partners who managed to pull him back from the edge of fiscal ruin.
While W. C. Handy’s music was all the rage in the first two decades of the century, it can’t be said that he kept pace with the rapid development of jazz. The dizzy whirlwind of improvisation didn’t interest him—he expected his band members to play what was on the page. Clinging to his early blues style, he went from “old school” to “old fashioned” during the second half of his career. Yet he never lost the love and respect of the younger generation. He may not have remained hip and cutting edge, but he was a beloved icon. He lived long enough to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, dignified and soulful, wearing dark glasses to cover his sightless eyes. And ten days after his death, Paramount Pictures released a biopic called St. Louis Blues. Nat King Cole starred as Handy, and Eartha Kitt as “Gogo Germaine” gave the Handy’s uptight on-screen father a piece of her mind before launching into song. (NB: I am quite sure that this snappy confrontation never happened in reality.)
Preparing for tonight’s concert, I was shocked to find out that Handy was no longer a name to reckon with. Even a musician I know who proclaims himself “steeped in the blues” had never heard of W. C. Handy. “Wow. I thought I was familiar with them all, but I guess the earliest blues guys I know are from the 1930s. You say this cat is the ‘father of the blues’?” “Bro, he wrote the ‘St. Louis Blues.’” “He did? No [expletive]!”
How did Handy descend from brand-name status to near-invisibility? I can think of three reasons. The first is the sudden ascent of Scott Joplin to superstardom in the early 1970s. When Nonesuch Records released an album of Joplin rags played by Joshua Rifkin, the LP became their first million-seller. Rifkin went on to make two more albums of Joplin rags, spurring a revival of interest in the genre. Scholars and historians outdid themselves legitimizing this rediscovered repertoire. Finally, when “The Entertainer” was featured in the 1973 blockbuster movie The Sting, Joplin’s music became part of the national soundtrack, played in airports and on wind-up toys. Suddenly everyone knew Joplin, while Handy’s name-recognition began to fade.
The second reason is a famous 1938 article by Jelly Roll Morton published in DownBeat magazine, in which he attacks Handy for assuming the title “Father of the Blues.” “I invented the blues in 1902,” Morton states. He goes on to accuse Handy of appropriating the music he heard in the rural south, turning his theft into a lucrative commercial enterprise. Morton’s writing is filled with equal parts of ethnomusicology and personal rancor—he was well-known to be vituperative and envious. His article greatly upset Handy, who wrote a strong rebuttal tempered with graciousness and respect for his colleague. Privately, though, he threatened to sue Morton.
The matter might have died out there had it not been for the music historian Alan Lomax, who interviewed Jelly Roll Morton and wrote extensively about him. It was Lomax who kept the rivalry of these two indispensable musicians alive into our times. The complex argument began with the origins of the blues. Did it come from the Mississippi Delta or urban centers like Memphis, Handy’s adopted city? Was it a folk medium with a strong political core, created by an exploited underclass, or a valuable African-American contribution to the nation’s popular song machine?
Of course, it is both. Neither Handy nor Morton owned or invented the blues. And we would be impoverished if we lost either of them. But Morton and his historian Lomax may well have tainted Handy’s reputation. I would like to do what I can to bring this significant artist back into the public eye.
In the past few years I have been aghast at the erosion of our country’s core values, and I know I am not alone in this. Hatred, greed, divisiveness, fear-mongering, and mendacity have grabbed the mike and hijacked the discourse. In these insane times, W. C. Handy is beautiful reminder of America’s true meaning. A person of kindness and optimism, Handy overcame tremendous adversity—racism, poverty, and illness—to create a musical empire that embraced both black and white America. He changed the very sound of our country’s music with the sweet and salty tang of the blue note, and the Ur-American cadence of the twelve-bar blues. His music is black, and white, and rural, and urban. It is for all of us—the multi-colored and multi-cultural united states of America.
A student and I were talking about the operas we’d heard in recent months, as we often do at the beginning of a session. It was a slightly depressing discussion, and one I’ve had several times recently in my studio during a period when there has been a lot of alarming crash-and-burn singing across the Plaza from Juilliard. I was doing my best not to be dismissive of the current generation of performers, apparently in vain. “Steve,” this young man asked me, “is there anyone singing today who does have some of the qualities you remember from the old days?”
I didn’t want to seem like a curmudgeon or a BOQ (“bitter opera queen”), so I said I’d get back to him. And today I thought of a singer I’ve come to admire a great deal—a woman I have never heard live, but whose recordings and broadcasts have that Golden Age beauty and the kind of vocal discipline I crave.
The Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka has sung some big stuff at the Met—“William Tell,” “Norma.” I’ve been fascinated by her voice ever since I heard her as Donna Anna on a Sirius broadcast of “Don Giovanni” in 2011. Her tuning was precise, almost instrumental. Her color was mysterious—dark and bright at the same time, what the Italians call chiaroscuro. The vibrato: narrow and even, spinning all the time but with an impression of stillness. The timbre: at once lean and plush. “She’s like a female Hvorostovsky,” I thought to myself.
I focused a lot on Rebeka this spring and summer because I was doing some obsessive listening to Verdi’s early opera “Luisa Miller.” I’d heard a performance at the Met that left me somewhat frustrated and unsatisfied (though I freely admit I cried like a baby at the end). I discovered that Rebeka had a new recording of it—thank you, Spotify—and I dove in. Eureka!
I’d grown up with the recording Anna Moffo made in 1965, in which she is often lovely. The role is a bit heavy for her, and as a result her Luisa is all lachrymose fragility, a vulnerable and helpless young woman. She’s like a stick of butter left out in the sun. Marina Rebeka is the opposite: steely and firm, defiant and strong. There are few technical challenges she doesn’t master with awesome resources. There is no little puckery burble when she goes into her upper register (what singers call the “passagio”). While Moffo leans on a little sob to finish her lines, Rebeka ends her phrases with poise, spinning off the last note like an expert gymnast. No grace note, no awkward bit of coloratura fazes her. It’s all there, clean as a whistle.
I began to think that Anna Moffo’s Luisa was built on an older idea of femininity, one that I remember from the 50s and 60s when women were still called “the weaker sex.” Marina Rebeka lacks Moffo’s warmth, and she can sound a little tough in Romantic roles. At the end of “Norma,” which I heard on Sirius, her touching plea that her father bring up her illegitimate children after her death sounded more like, “Dad, you need to take the kids, I’ve got to be away on a business trip, the plane’s in an hour.”
Yes, Marina Rebeka can be brusque. But she’s an expert singer with musical class and a timbre that won’t leave my imagination. She has dignity, fierceness, and stature—a diva for our times. I can’t wait to see her live—though she doesn’t appear to be coming this way this season, alas.
Here’s a link to the whole “Luisa,” but why don’t you start with the final section of the Act III duet with George Petean, who sings a stunningly beautiful performance of Miller:
(2:17:30). They both take the first two phrases of the melody in one breath, which rocks my world.
And if you want to hear more heart-stopping “Luisa” beauty, here’s Caballé live from the Met 1968. An excerpt from the Act III duet with Rodolfo, here sung by Richard Tucker. It still makes me cry, so excuse me while I look for some Kleenex.
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