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George and Ira Gershwin: Homeward Bound

The 1927 musical Strike Up the Band was a flop, but it contained some of George and Ira Gershwin’s best songs.  One of the lesser-known ones was “Homeward Bound”, sung by soldier boys at the end of a fictitious war in a satirical story. I am inordinately fond of it. As my last song this week, it strikes me as expressive of the joyful relief some will feel when released from the captivity caused by current travel restrictions. Stuck thousands of miles from home, they long for this moment. Here’s John Musto and me.

Once again the golden sun is shining
On the lonesome soldier boy;
And the heavy heart that knows but pining
Beats again a song of joy.
Soon we’ll be in our native land once more —
There to greet all the loved ones we adore.
Homeward bound
On the way!
Homeward bound
Home to stay!
What a thrill!
Jack and Jill
Will soon be deep in clover
Trouble’s over for me!
Me oh my!
Misery, say goodbye!
Can’t go wrong—
Won’t be long, boys,
You’re lucky when you’re homeward bound!

Marc Blitzstein: Stay in My Arms

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!

Blitzstein: Penny Candy

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. 

Marc Blitzstein: In the Clear

Continuing my preview of our fall concerts: Silverlake and No For an Answer, November 19 at Merkin Hall. 

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.

Bernstein: Nachspiel

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

Olaf Bienert: Parc Monceau

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some selections from our commercial recordings. 

A mainstay of NYFOS’s early years, baritone William Sharp sings “Parc Monceau” (Olaf Bienert, text by Kurt Tucholsky) on Unquiet Piece, an album focused on German song written between the world wars.

From the liner notes by Steven Blier:
The poet Kurt Tucholsky may be unfamiliar to many Americans, but he enjoyed great popularity in his day; in Germany his works have assumed the status of classics. He was a German-Jewish writer, one of the great political and social satirists of the early part of the twentieth century. An ardent pacifist and anti-fascist, he was described as “a chubby little Berliner who tried to stem the catastrophe with a typewriter.” A number of his poems were set by Eisler; more colloquially, his words were put to bewitching cabaret-style music by the Berlin band-leader Olaf Bienert. “Parc Monceau” was probably written around 1924 while Tucholsky was on holiday in Paris, but its message of an unspoken menace in his homeland, beautifully and economically captured by Bienert, was all too prophetic. Tucholsky lost his German citizenship in 1933, and committed suicide in Sweden two years later. He had already seen too much.

It’s lovely here, here I can dream peacefully; here I’m a person, not a “civilian.” I can go left if I want, and there are no signs that read “Verboten.”
A soccer ball lies on the grass: a bird tugs on a shiny leaf; a little boy digs around in his nose and is delighted with what he has found. Four Americans pass by, to check out whether there really are trees here, as it says in their Cook’s Tour Book. Paris inside out! They see nothing, and must see every sight.
The children play boisterously on the pebbles, the sun shines and glints off a roof. I sit quietly, and let the sun warm me, and take a rest from my homeland.

Gershwin: Hi-Ho!

No sooner has the hurly-burly of the New York season ended than the summer season creeps up from behind, screaming for attention. I just ran a musical marathon that ended with four huge projects in the space of five weeks (in three cities). But pretty soon I’ll be off to Wolf Trap to do something Kim Witman titled Four of a Kind. Why? Well, it has songs from four countries, sung by four singers, and accompanied by four hands. Mine, and those of Joseph Li. I met Joseph last summer and quickly realized I was in the presence of musical royalty. I found that his heart was as warm as his music, and following a strong instinct I decided that we should work on a program together. I knew his playing only from a few YouTube clips, but I had a hunch that amounted to a certainty.

Joe and I just spent some time together in New York working out our duets (played from scores) and our two-piano song accompaniments (improvised, usually with nothing more explicit than “You play high in this one, and I’ll stay low”). Joe is a superb partner, able to hear the onset of a ritardando in the space of two notes, or a change of timbre and articulation the moment it happens. I’ve played with some great pianists: John Musto, Michael Barrett, Chris Reynolds, and now Joseph Li have all made me feel like Ginger Rogers to their Fred Astaire. But wait, not backwards and in heels. No, it’s more like being a pair of Nicholas Brothers:

One of the songs we’re doing at Wolf Trap is Gershwin’s “Hi-ho.” George and Ira wrote it for the movie “Shall We Dance,” and it finds the brothers at the top of their game. Musically complex (an early listener called it “practically a piano sonata”) and lyrically adroit, “Hi-ho” is a true Gershwin masterpiece. But it was simply too long to be included in the movie. It would have needed an expensive, elaborate set, and Hollywood was not seduced by its sheer musical brilliance. Tony Bennett recorded it as a sexy soft-shoe, but William Sharp and I exploited its careening energy when we made our Gershwin CD in 1990. I love Tony B., but I think our “Hi-ho” flies higher. And when Joe and I played it last weekend, my piano started to give off smoke. Watch out, world.

Charles Ives: Two Little Flowers

I love a song that will always make me cry.

One of my most tried and true waterworks wranglers is Charles Ives’ simple ode to two little girls in his life, “Two little flowers (and dedicated to them)” (1921), performed here by the excellent Bill Sharp and our beloved Steve Blier.

Ives wrote the text himself with his wife, Harmony Twitchell, who wins the prize for name-I-most-wish-I-had. It’s a little poem inspired by the sight of their adopted daughter, Edith, play with her friend Susanna Minturn. It’s small and simple, like the girls themselves, and means so much more than its constituent parts:

On sunny days in our backyard,
two little flowers are seen,
One dressed, at times, in brightest pink 
and one in green.

The marigold is radiant,
the rose passing fair;
The violet is ever dear, 
the orchid, ever rare;

There’s lovliness in wild flow’rs
of field or wide savannah,
But fairest, rarest of them all 
are Edith and Susanna.

While one might wax poetic about the rose, violet, the orchid, the marigold (those art song heavy-hitters) – what is most fair and most rare is the purity and innocence of two little girls, acting like little girls in a backyard in New England in summertime. Sounds of high-pitched laughter, images of scraped knees or messy pigtails come to mind, and I am reminded of two important little girls in my own life, very dear second cousins who are wildly excited to be (very appropriately for this post) flower girls in my upcoming wedding. I’m an only child and the youngest of my first cousins, so playing with energetic, creative, boundlessly fair and rare little girls has been a beautiful and novel blessing of my early adulthood. Their curiosity, positivity, and imagination is inspirational.

Here are my fairest, rarest girls of all – Sabina and Olivia:

IMG_2764

Ives, capable of early modernist sonorities of the head-spinning sort, spins a sweet melody over delicate broken chords, sometimes unexpected in their harmony. For me, it is the G minor chord that occurs on “but fairest, rarest of them all”…that always sets me off. It is magical, it is beyond sentimental, it is the small and lovely feeling of girlhood in summer.

Tomorrow: sleepless nights, knighthood, and the return of the repeat button

Lee Hoiby: What If

William Sharp has been my most enduring song partner. We met at Aspen in 1978, where he was a fellowship student and I was…whatever I was. An apprentice coach or something. The first thing I remember working on with Bill was the Act I duet from Don Pasquale, what’s known as the “Rehearsal Duet” for Norina and Malatesta. My boss Richard Pearlman, always a musical yenta, had given him a big build-up before our first meeting. This, of course, only made me more skeptical. Bill was a protégé of American icon Jan de Gaetani, who had become a kind of oracle figure (especially at Aspen). Her students tended to have scrupulous musicianship, compact timbres, and a rather intellectual approach to interpretation. They would say things like, “I am working on a rhythmic conceptualization for the first two measures.” And I would think, “What possible conceptualization? It goes boom-chick-boom-chick.” My musical instincts were more theatrically based and emotionally driven. (I think they still are.) Yet when Bill sang Donizetti he demonstrated so much wit and style that he didn’t sound Italianate—instead, he somehow became Italian. I was conquered.

We went on to win a couple of big competitions—Young Concert Artists in 1983, and Carnegie Hall’s International American Music Competition in 1987. My father was still alive when we got first place at Carnegie, and our prize brought a kind of joy to his spirit that I hadn’t seen since he’d gotten sick four years earlier. Of course, the tie I bought to wear at Carnegie was the same one I wore four months later at my dad’s funeral. I was dimly aware this would be true when I picked it out at the store.

Bill and I have had a rich musical life together. We toured the country with YCA, where there were some glorious nights and some less-than-glorious ones. In Bozeman, we had twelve people at the concert, including two in the lighting booth who were making out during the entire concert. The others were there for a class assignment which only required them to be there till intermission. At a restaurant in Tennessee, I asked the waiter if the salmon was a steak (as opposed to a filet) and was told, “No, suhrrr, it’s a fee-ish.” In Kalamazoo Bill got laryngitis and I transposed three-quarters of the concert down a step on a few hours’ notice. (All in a night’s work.) Most importantly, we got to experiment with programming ideas, especially looking for new ways to begin a recital. Our goal, I now think, was to disarm and comfort the audience at the same time—to give them something unexpected but interesting to hook them in for the journey.

Bill and I covered the waterfront musically, from Brahms’s Magelone-Lieder and Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn to Gershwin, Ives, vaudeville tunes, and the American premiere of Bernstein’s last work, Arias and Barcarolles. He became my own personal graduate school, intuitively teaching me musical structure, style, and nuance. I learned my trade with Bill.

In those heady, early days of the CD we made a number of recordings together, including one that was a debut album for both of us: a New World disc of American songs by Virgil Thompson, Paul Bowles, John Musto, and Lee Hoiby. It was part of our Carnegie Hall prize. (Lee H. was not too happy about the three wrong notes I played in one of his songs, but I was working from a handwritten transposition by Bill, in which he’d left out a treble clef. I probably should have done that transposition at sight…) Though it got nominated for a Grammy, I knew we had little chance of grabbing that ring. But as I said at the time, “How many snowballs even GET to hell?”

Here’s that beautiful Lee Hoiby song with the three incorrect notes (I don’t remember where they are—for better or for worse, whatever I played works just as well). The poem is by Coleridge, and the tune is called “What If.” It’s a beauty, one of Hoiby’s very best pieces. It’s a good example of how Bill can guide a long musical arc, sustaining the journey with grace and beauty.

Song of the Day: October 21

Shea OwensThis week’s Song of the Day curator is baritone Shea Owens. An alumnus of NYFOS’s Emerging Artist program and NYFOS Next, Shea is returning to the NYFOS Mainstage next month in From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and FriendsBe sure to get your tickets today!  

from Shea Owens:

I walked out of an audition recently and my manager told me, “Shea, we need to get you some new audition attire.” Apparently I was wearing pants that were just a bit too loose to be considered fashionable. He labeled them “finance” pants, which are only one step away from “lawyer” pants, apparently. A few days later, as I was walking to the tailor to get my new pants hemmed and my jacket taken in, I thought of a piece by Marc Blitzstein that I performed in a recital once— “The New Suit” (better known as, “Zipperfly”). Grant me a suit with a form-fitting coat, and a six-button vest, and a zipperfly . . . The song suddenly carried new meaning for me. One could say it became more suitable . . .

Steven Blier recorded this piece with William Sharp for an album originally released in 1991 titled “Marc Blitzstein: Zipperfly & Other Songs.” (This was another album that I heard and bought immediately, by the way.) The recording is marvelous, and so fun.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGsBMx0s3QM

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