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Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 5

DAY 5:  April 26, 2015

I do most of my programming staring at my computer screen. I don’t sit down and play through the show before finalizing my NYFOS concerts. I just…gaze at my Mac…and imagine how it’s all going to work. This method seems to be working for me. The last bunch of shows have been very strong, and these days it seems best to work by instinct.

Still, there is a scary moment of truth at the first run-through when I actually hear the concert in order. D-Day was Friday. And yes, I was surprised—but in a good way. The program order works pretty much as I had predicted, but on an emotional level Letters from Spain packs much more of a punch than I was expecting. For one thing, I hadn’t foreseen how much drama and color Alexey was going to bring to his Shostakovich songs. On the page they look like a delicious appetizer course; in his hands, they are more like dinner at The Four Seasons. I also hadn’t quite absorbed the scope of the Bolcom Canciones de Lorca, super-saturated music done to a turn by Theo Lebow. Let me just state that the boy has cojones. So does Bill Bolcom, who found a way to bring Lorca’s passion and sensitivity blazing into life. Like a lot of Bill’s music, these songs work on so many levels: a brilliant reading of the poems, a multifarious exploration of Spanish musical styles from flamenco to tango to Cuban dance, and a mini-biography of this iconic writer.

cast for April 28th

We were originally going to do this recital without an intermission in New York, but we’ve decided to give the audience a 10-minute breather before Corinne’s exquisite Guastavino songs. Hearing her sing “Se equivocó la paloma,” I remembered why they call this composer “the Schubert of the Pampas.” The two composers share the same kind of elegance and transparency, along with those heartbreaking changes of harmony when melodies repeat.. It takes real mastery to write something so simple and so perfect, and it’s a special treat to hear them sung by such a colorful, warm voice. When the cast sang the encore—another Guastavino tune—I started to tear up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going into the other room to have a good cry.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 3

DAY 3 April 23, 2015

There are some recipes that require you to mix ingredients in two different bowls and then combine the contents before cooking them. That’s what happened this week: Alexey could work Monday but not Tuesday, Corinne and Theo could work Tuesday but not Monday. Wednesday we poured the two brews together.

Corinne was singing when Alexey tiptoed into my apartment. I didn’t see him come in, but I could tell he’d arrived just by listening to Corinne. She subtly went from “I’m rehearsing” mode to “I’m performing mode,” as if her Guastavino song had put on heels and lipstick when company arrived.

april full ensemble

I thought it would be smart to get to the three trios as soon as possible, because everyone had been spending the lion’s share of their preparation on their solo material. Michael and I plowed into the intro to Lorca’s “Anda, jaleo,” in which Alexey has the first of the three verses. In the spirit of “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” Alexey let out with a roar that practically knocked me off my chair. In the opera world, size matters; it is the men’s locker room of music. Corinne and Theo have their feet squarely in that world, singing opera all over the world. Exerting exquisite muscular control they kept their eyebrows from hitting the ceiling, and then made their own counteroffer—“No, by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” They belted out their verses at the top of their lungs, and we suddenly had a team—and a great one. What a blessing these three singers are, one of the best casts we have ever had at NYFOS (and the bar is high).

For me, yesterday was a huge relief. Tuesday had been a long, long day at the piano, totaling out to about 6 hours of playing—and none of them very beautiful or comfortable. By evening my arm was sore, my spirits were low, my mood was grim. But by some miracle I had not worn myself out to the danger point, and I recovered to have quite a decent day of music-making. There are five spots in the Bolcom that still need repair, but on Sunday there were only five spots that sounded decent at all. Now, that is progress.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: “Letters from Spain” / Day 1

DAY 1 – April 21, 2015
We’ve had two days of rehearsal on LETTERS FROM SPAIN, a program about which I had some trepidation. No surprises there—I am always freaked out before I start a project, certain that I have miscalculated in some fatal way. So my dominant feeling right now is relief, for two reasons: the music and the cast, reassuringly great in both cases.

It began yesterday when baritone Alexey Lavrov came in for his first rehearsal. He’d auditioned for me about a year ago and I was struck by the aliveness of his singing, his theatrical daring, his burly voice. So I should have been prepared for the tidal wave he unleashed when he sang the Shostakovich Spanish Songs for Michael and me. In his hands these simple folksongs became vivid dramas, filled with more charm, humor, and emotion than I ever imagined possible. This guy is a life force and he sings from the gut. You don’t need to speak Russian to understand what Alexey is saying.

Later on we were working on a song by Antón García Abril set to a Lorca poem. Rather unsure as to whether this was a smart move on my part, I blurted out, “You know…this poem strikes me as very gay.” Silence. “Of course, most of Lorca’s poems seem that way to me.” Michael Barrett started to run interference. “Well,” he said, “that would be your perspective of course…” But Alexey was not fazed. He took a moment and then said, “Oh yes, yes—I see what you mean. Something intense, something private, something forbidden, something you couldn’t say just anywhere, something that you wait for the right moment to share.” The three of us talked about cultural mores in early twentieth century Spain, sharing stuff we’d read. Then Alexey sang the song again, this time with such startling intensity and longing that I literally began to shiver. When Alexey rehearses he likes to sing right at you, turning you into his scene partner. It’s a kind of musical “truth or dare,” and you need to summon your strength to face him down. “More like that?” he asked. “Yes,” Michael and I said. “Exactly like that.”

Lebow, Winters and Blier rehearsing

Today we saw Corinne Winters and Theo Lebow. I’ve worked with both of them before, and I would say there were no surprises…but after the shock of yesterday’s encounter with Alexey I was especially alive to their singing—their tremendous musicianship coupled to an amazing vocal aesthetic. Corinne has to have one of the most opulent voices on the current scene, and it’s a treat to hear her lavish that beautiful sound on Hugo Wolf and Guastavino. Theo is tackling four of Bolcom’s Canciones de Lorca, an insanely brilliant piece of music that has colonized our lives for the last few weeks. It was originally written for tenor and orchestra, and the piano reduction is dauntingly difficult. (The vocal line is pretty demanding too.) But we’re getting our act together, and Theo’s first reading was nothing short of stunning. That boy can wail, and it turns out that he has Latin hips after all—something he let loose in the last song, a salsa in praise of Cuba. I was dead tired and running on fumes as I heard myself say, “Can we just do the Cuba song one more time?”

Blier’s Blog: March 16, 2013 / NYFOS@Caramoor

It’s funny—the minute a concert is over, life washes in like a tidal wave, and all the things that I’ve put on hold scream for immediate attention. Therefore: a belated log-in about Tuesday’s show.

I worried that we might not have much of a house because my former student Naomi O’Connell was having her official debut recital (courtesy of Concert Artists Guild) at Weill Hall the same night. Our mutual friends would have divided loyalties, of course, and I would have to do my level best not to hold grudges against those who elected to support Naomi on her big night. But we still gathered a very good crowd at Merkin, and even a few of my Juilliard students (bless them) showed up. (It’s a good thing I don’t have to give any of them grades.)

Midnight Sun cast after the final performance

Sunday at Caramoor had been a watershed day for me at the piano: I was able to implement some of the new technical stuff I’m working on while under the scrutiny of the public. It was a real step forward to have my brains, my hands, and my heart working together at a higher level than ever. But playing in New York is always a bit tougher for me; I’m more nervous, and even after 40 years onstage I’m still aware of who’s out there. Though I say soothing things to my hands and arms they don’t always listen. Still, I felt pretty good in the first half of the show, and continued to play well after intermission in spite of a few moments when some old, habitual tensions invaded my body. I used to think that this was my own private, unutterable burden, but in recent years I have finally learned that I am not alone. It seems that most of us pianists are constantly tweaking our techniques—as we try to make our boxy percussion instrument into something sexy and seductive. On Tuesday I managed to tame the rather overbearing piano at Merkin Hall, but I thought I was working a little too hard at the end of the evening.

Still, the cast sang like gods, Michael was a gem, and I could feel that the audience was moved by the songs—and bowled over by the singers. We ended the Rising Stars experience just right: with a beautiful musical communion.

Blier’s Blog: March 11, 2013 / NYFOS@Caramoor

Vocal Rising Stars at Caramoor, fifth season, days seven and eight:
out-of-town debut, in-town dress. Two halls, two pianos.

Midnight Sun castIt’s the night before the New York show and I do not want to jinx things. Suffice it to say that we had a beautiful performance yesterday, and that the audience at Caramoor who came to enjoy budding young artists were confronted instead with four very assured, powerhouse musicians. The Westchester crowd is not demonstrative; they’re low-key, easy to talk to but not big laughers, easy to entertain if you’re not expecting an explosive response. But they did explode, in their gentle way, several times yesterday. And we had one slice of luck: a wonderful man sat in the front row, beamed at us, inhaled the music as if it were Chanel #5, laughed at my jokes, and appeared to be in Music Heaven for the entire afternoon. Afterwards I told him that he was invited to sit in Row A of every concert I give for the rest of my life, and that I would pay for his ticket, airfare, and hotel. I even got his business card—I’ll keep you posted.

It’s usually a shock to the system to move the show from the clear, dry acoustics of Caramoor’s Music Room to the reverberance of Merkin Hall. At Caramoor you can bound onto the stage in three beats; at Merkin you need four measures. But we ironed everything out, kept the singers near the three hanging mikes, and kicked a few umlauts back into place. Something cool happened to my left arm during Act II—it was as if a tendon way up near my shoulder untwisted and released my hand. Signing off—have to go back to the piano and see what that was all about….

We are at Merkin Hall—Tuesday night, the 12th—8 PM. And this is something you’ll really enjoy and remember.

Blier’s Blog: March 9, 2013 / NYFOS@Caramoor

Vocal Rising Stars at Caramoor, fifth season, day six: reassuring dress rehearsal.
Final Lock and Load, tray tables up.

The Cast of Song of the Midnight SunWe had an amazingly good dress rehearsal today, and I couldn’t be happier with the program or the singers. I even had one of my first above-average days at the piano, which was a huge relief. There are always spots in every concert where you have to let-go-let-God (and then you find out whether God exists after all). Each of us has one song we want to slap upside the face till we have our way with it. But this afternoon most of the music felt warm and familiar in my hands, and I do like the Steinway up at Caramoor. It’s a non-antagonistic musical partner.

No one in this cast had ever sung in Swedish, Norwegian, or Danish—not even Sarah Larsen, whose ancestors hail from that part of the world. (I had assumed she’d be our umlaut guru. But no. Probably just as well…) And therefore: what a miracle to hear each of them baring their souls so fully in languages they have known for such a short amount of time. This is a quartet of very charismatic voices, and everyone is capturing the full monty of this rep—the warmth and the ice, the stoicism and the despair, the quiet joys and the confessions of guilty desire.

It was so great to have Karen Holvik out front to watch and listen. She sees details—the way the singers distribute their weight over their feet, the way they move, a momentary loss of vibrato, the occasional flicker of indecision about a gesture, a slight problem with visual focus. And she is right there with a solution—no, a few solutions, methods for making a commitment when any tiny moments of uncertainty crop up. I knew she had great ears but she also has great eyes, and she earned everyone’s trust.

I admit it: I am looking forward to the concert tomorrow. 21 great songs, 4 startlingly beautiful singers, and a pair of pianists with big hearts and a passion for the task at hand.

Blier’s Blog: March 8, 2013 / NYFOS@Caramoor

Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars, Day Five: Resilience and Breakthroughs.
A faux-blizzard only makes it all the more Scandinavian.

It was the third day Michael and I couldn’t get to Caramoor for our morning session, this time because of a very wet snowstorm that made driving conditions somewhere between irritating and dangerous. We waited till 11:45 AM and then headed north. By then the snow was letting up, and the roads around Caramoor were clear. Once I was on the grounds, there were a couple of places I skidded on my wheelchair—I nearly drove into a parked car when I hit a patch of slush. Very exciting. But all in all the weather emergency receded quickly, leaving us only with a lot of picturesque snow-covered trees and a feeling of having passed a test.

Today we had our second guest teacher, my dear old friend Karen Holvik. We’ve known each other for over three decades and been onstage together many times. Karen has sung a fair amount of Grieg; as you can tell from her name, she is of Norwegian stock. And she is now the head of the voice department at New England Conservatory. She missed her train in Boston when her cab got mired in snow, but she was in time for our late start.

It is interesting having a newcomer in the room after an intense week of rehearsal. Michael and I have seen the progress, we also know where the singers still need to be encouraged, persuaded, reminded, applauded, and gently scolded. But by Friday we have two slight disadvantages: we have asked for certain things over and over again and we can see that there is a slight gap—one might say a credibility gap—between us and the cast. And we hear them from behind the piano while we are busy trying to make music ourselves.

Karen Holvik with the cast of Midnight SunKaren came in cold to the rehearsal, armed with her sharp eyes and ears and her elegant sensibility for performance. And she is a singer. There is something about a singer coaching a singer than no pianist in the world can ever attain. She didn’t say a single thing that we had not said before, but she had a heartwarming believability for the cast. If she says, “That sound carries beautifully, you don’t need to go louder,” they finally sing more softly. If she says, you need more consonants, they up the ante on their diction. With her clarity and kindness, Karen was able to break down that last bit of resistance. In the car ride after the rehearsal when we were dropping Julia and Toby off for dinner, both of them thanked me for Karen’s contribution. “Oh, that was great. She came at just the right time, around dress rehearsal.” “You know, she said pretty much what I’ve been saying all week…” “Oh yes, sure…but…well, it’s great to have anothersinger in the room.” And it is, it really is. If it’s someone of Karen’s caliber.

In truth, it was a joy to team-coach with Karen and Michael. The songs are in their third trimester; I can induce labor but Karen is a midwife.

Blier’s Blog: March 7, 2013 / NYFOS@Caramoor

Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars, Day Four: Mecca slowing coming into view, on a road strewn with umlauts

Theo Lebow and Sarah LarsenToday the singers showed us the staging they did for the encore after Mikey and I left last night. I won’t divulge what piece we’re doing because I want it to be a surprise. But they came up with something devilishly clever and pretty sexy. There is a lot of thrilling singing in our show, and a lot of moving material—Sarah, Julia, Theo, and Toby break my heart (and Mikey’s too) on an hourly basis. But it was great to see them do something playful. I also received a video yesterday evening of Toby singing one of his Sibelius songs solemnly accompanying himself on a vibraphone they found in the basement of their residence, while Sarah (holding the phone-camera) is shrieking with laughter. I think the four of them have become a family, and thank God not one of those depressed, dysfunctional Ingmar Bergman families.

Thinking back on the week, I am remembering a Julia moment on Tuesday, when John Lidal was working with us. She was singing a very famous song by Grieg called “En svane”—she’d asked for the piece and I happily put it on the program to oblige her. It has a poem by Ibsen. Sixteen bars in, she stops singing and goes into “I can’t sing this piece, I don’t understand it, there’s something that doesn’t make sense.” I start in patiently explaining the poem when I suddenly realize that after knowing this song for forty years I don’t quite get it either. It talks about a swan who sings, of course, just before dying, In the middle, though, it has a line about “But at our last meeting, when vows and glances were secret lies…” We look at John. “Um, vows, glances, secret lies. Explain.”

Toby Greenhalgh and Julia Bullock

John clears his throat and says, “Well. Who knows if this is true, but legend has it that there was a woman who was in love with Ibsen for years, and she never told him till she was dying. And that’s what the song is really about—a confession of love from a death-bed.” “Not a swan?” “Not a swan.” Silence. I open my mouth to say something but Julia gets there first. “Let’s sing it again.” Of course it was a totally different song. The miracle was twofold: first, Julia looked at that text and saw there was an unexplained mystery, and she did so in the presence of a man (our beloved John Lidal) who could actually unlock the door.

Blier’s Blog: March 6, 2013

Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars, fifth season, day three: hard work and patience

We had a great afternoon session and managed to delve deep into every single song in the program. It felt a little weird not having a native speaker in the room for the Scando stuff (the bulk of the concert), but that didn’t mean the language police weren’t out. We tend to use the passive-aggressive method of correcting one another—“How are you saying that word, sweetheart?” instead of, “Oy! You’re saying it wrong!” Among the six of us, there will usually be at least two who can come up with the correct pronunciation at any point.

The drama happened in the morning when our very rattly, rented wheelchair-van malfunctioned upon arrival at Caramoor. Not only was the motorized door-opener/elevator dead as a doornail, but we couldn’t even revert to the manual, hand-cranked method because one of the critical doors was jammed. Toby and the ace maintenance guy at Caramoor bashed at it with everything short of a crowbar, but I remained locked in the car. For two hours. Michael was more overtly upset than I; I made a conscious decision to take the moral high ground and go Buddhist till the crisis was over. All the singers came and visited me in my van-prison, Julia brought me lunch, Theo told me a joke, Sarah looked sympathetic, Toby went into handy-man mode. Eventually a guy from the Danbury rental agency showed up, ripped the inside of the door off and wrestled the lock into submission. I was ready to work at 11, but started at 2. Still, the snow held off and we all rose to the occasion. And they brought us a new van, less rattly, in place of the wreck we were using.The Theremin volume dial goes to 11.

There is a Theremin—yes, a Theremin—in the Music Room at Caramoor. The original owner, Lucy Rosen, was a devotee of the instrument and gave its inventor, Léon Theremin, some heavy-duty financial support. I’m not a fan of Theremins but the one in our space has a great quality: the volume control GOES TO 11. It’s just like Spinal Tap—if you want that extra push, well….

Blier’s Blog: March 5, 2013

Vocal Rising Stars at Caramoor, fifth season, day two: buckling down 

Today was our second (and last) with John Lidal, and we went through the whole show with all hands on deck. Of the five languages on the program, English and German are familiar and non-threatening; but navigating the intricacies of Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian is a mind-bender. An “ä” sounds one way in Swedish and another way in German; g’s and k’s do strange, disparate things in the three Scandinavian languages, occasional consonants are unpronounced, the odd “s” turns into “sh,” and the vowels are not consistent—sometimes the Swedish “o” is “oh,” and sometimes it’s “oo.” There’s no rule to memorize, you just have to know so you don’t say “sofa” when you mean “forest.” But today I could feel that everything was falling into place, and we’re all pronouncing words like “kärlekstengeln” and “kjaerlighed” with foolhardy conviction.

John Lidal with the cast of Song of the Midnight SunHaving John Lidal coaching in tandem with Michael and me all day made for an intense six hours of rehearsal. Hats off to the cast for absorbing everyone’s contributions with so much concentration. John is a benign and articulate man and could coach this concert with one hand tied behind his back, but occasionally I felt I had to step in. Toby was once again tremendously moving in “Våren” but he kept pronouncing the word “ein” in the German way, “ine.” “No, it’s really ‘ane.’” Toby would sing the phrase again and say “ine,” and John would say, “Um, no, it’s ane.” After the fourth time, I spoke up. “Toby. Toby! It’s ‘ane,’ like…anus.” Short pause. “OK! Well, now I’ll never forget it,” replied Toby. And he didn’t. Later I interceded when Theo was having trouble with the word “vakar,” which he got right when he put the word “mother” in front of it.

I continue to be bowled over by the four singers—extraordinary artists and startlingly good musicians. People with voices this good aren’t usually this smart. Music is pouting out of them, and I am more in love with these Scandinavian songs than ever. Hats off to Julia Bullock, Sarah Larsen, Theo Lebow, and Tobias Greenhalgh–and to Michael Barrett, to whom I owe so much in my life.

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