I remember being at Tower Records in 1980, where I came across a fancy boxed set of LPs called Régine Crespin: 30 ans sur scène. Thirty years of performances, from Fiordiligi to Fidelio—what a dazzling pinnacle! At age 28, I could barely grasp the idea of such a long career. In the black-and-white photo on the cover, Crespin looked simultaneously chic and anguished, clad in a chiffon shmata and bearing the weight of her experience with noble fortitude.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the sight of that album began to prepare me for my silver anniversary, which has finally arrived 43 years later: 50 ans sur scène! But no black chiffon for me, and no anguish. This is a night for celebration. I may have a half-century of concerts behind me, but I am still in the game, with a profusion of recital and recording projects crowding my piano, my office, and every bit of brain space I have to call my own. It drives me crazy. I’ll take it.
It became obvious that there was no way to devise the equivalent of a biopic for this evening’s program. By now I’ve played in every kind of hall, from the most exalted (Carnegie and La Scala) to the least (a tiny, dim underground cabaret in a Long Island strip mall). In acoustics ranging from bathtub-wet to Sahara dry, I’ve made music for audiences on a spectrum from wildly attentive to flagrantly comatose. As for repertoire, you name it, I’ve played it—somewhere.
The best thing to do was to throw a musical party and invite some of the songs that have special meaning for me—they would be enough to tell my story. From the beginning I knew that I would want to program music from Latin America, one of my musical passions; Strayhorn and Ellington had to attend; and somehow I needed to get some art song, a bit of Kurt Weill, and some bel canto into the mix. They’ve been intrinsic to my career, as well as to my musical soul.
The trick was getting the right cast on board, and I was on a lucky streak. I had engaged Federico De Michelis a year ago, the night he made his NYFOS debut in Buenos Aires, Then and Now. His singing had touched me very deeply; here was the Argentinean muse I had been searching for since NYFOS’s first season in 1988. I had a similar epiphany with Lucia Bradford in our April concert, The Wider View, when she sang “Come Sunday” and made time stop. No surprise there: she had brought down the house in several other NYFOS shows, where her stunning contralto voice raised the pulse in songs ranging from sacred to profane. Miraculously, she was available, as was Will Socolof, who had given some brilliant renditions of Kurt Weill songs when he was my student at Juilliard. Three men on base!
And then came the miracle home run. (I hope I am getting this sports metaphor right.) I have been a serious fan of the baritenor (his term) Michael Spyres for some time. I first heard him at Bard in 2009 when he sang the killer tenor role in Meyerbeer’s Les huguenots. I kept up with his recordings on Erato and Warner Classics, and later through his singing in recitals and at the Met. After his all-Rossini concert with Laurence Brownlee at the 92nd Street Y in September of 2021, I decided to introduce myself. To do so, I parted the Red Sea of fans who surrounded him by driving my wheelchair straight through the crowd. Michael looked at me in amazement.
“That was impressive.”
I had been so blown away by his singing that my sense of decorum deserted me momentarily, and I blush to admit that I dropped the F-bomb in my first words to him. Luckily he understood that my profanity was born of admiration. I renewed my acquaintance with him after his next recital in New York, and continued my career as a stage-door Johnny when he sang Idomeneo at the Met last fall.
I would never have had the cojones to ask him to sing on tonight’s program, but in December I found myself in a tight spot: Kate Lindsey, who was originally engaged to perform in Amor, suddenly had to cancel because of an unanticipated scheduling emergency that absolutely required her to be home in England this week. I realized Michael would be in town rehearsing Norma at the Met, and asked Kate to reach out to him on my behalf. He was extremely gracious, he accepted, and the Met gave him the night off. Grand slam!
Blessed with a dream cast, I got down to the nuts and bolts of choosing what they’d sing. The biggest anguish was the opening group of Argentinean songs. No matter what I settled on, I’d be leaving something precious on the floor. I decided to lead off with the Piazzolla piano duet “Fuga y misterio” because I love its combination of classical discipline (beginning with a Bach-like fugue) and aggressive tango, bookending a poignant minor-key lament. The knife-edge of Piazzolla’s music always has a visceral effect on my nervous system; for four minutes I am imbued with a kind of devil-may-care machismo that is utterly foreign to me. Another benefit: the duo-piano arrangement by Pablo Ziegler offered the opportunity to invite a beloved colleague as my musical partner: composer-pianist Shawn Chang. I also programmed one of Piazzolla’s sung tangos: “Siempre se vuelve a Buenos Aires,” which describes the city’s magnetic pull as a kind of addiction, sometimes welcome, sometimes not, but unavoidable for its denizens. As a confirmed native New Yorker, I get it.
My personality is far closer to that of the gentle Carlos Guastavino, who earned his nickname “The Schubert of the Pampas” through several hundred subtle ballads, filled with bewitching turns of harmony and elegant melodies. But he also knew how to bare his teeth, as you’ll hear in the ballsy Zamba “Abismo de sed.”
I’ve been waiting for a whole year to hear Federico De Michelis pick up his guitar again to sing “Allá lejos y hace tiempo,” a nostalgic hymn to the beauties of Argentina. This is a country I have never visited, and perhaps may never see in my lifetime. The Argentina I know exists only through music and poetry, no doubt romanticized and idealized. Yet from the first moment I heard an Argentinean song I have felt an unexplainable alliance with this fantasy land, a mirage sustained for decades by her composers and poets.
Choosing material for Lucia Bradford didn’t provoke any anguish at all. It was obvious that we’d bring back Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” a performance which had practically made me want to convert when Lucia sang it last April. In our concert about Gay Harlem, she had also rocked my world in two pieces from the late 1920s, “It Makes My Love Come Down” and “Ground Hog Blues.” The first of them is a late-career song by the great Bessie Smith. Crowned the “Empress of the Blues,” she was famous for her rough, confrontational persona. Yet this song is a joyous celebration of sex, imbued with a frank sensuality quite different from the belligerent “pig-foot-and-a-bottle-of-beer” gal we’ve come to expect.
“Ground Hog Blues” was a big hit for the long-forgotten Gladys Bentley, a cross-dressing blues artist with a voice of Wagnerian force—and a devilish wit. Clad in white, tailor-made men’s formalwear and sporting a white top-hat and cane, her piano-playing, her honesty about relationships, her ability to improvise hilariously scandalous lyrics, her overt womanizing, and her bold, non-conforming gender identity made her a star of the Harlem Renaissance. For many years she was forgotten—unlike the iconic Ethel Waters, Bentley made no movies or TV appearances to secure her place in the modern world. But in 2019 the New York Times included her in a series about overlooked Black men and women who never received an obituary in their paper. Soon after I saw her face waving on a banner near my home during Black History Month—this rowdy, gifted self-declared “male impersonator” was finally enjoying her place in the Pantheon. I am happy Lucia Bradford and I can help cement Bentley’s re-emergence into the limelight.
When I asked Lucia if she wanted to learn Billy Strayhorn’s “Day Dream” for this performance, she accepted in a heartbeat. Strayhorn is a composer I have come to love. He brought a long-lined bel canto spirit to mid-century jazz, which was so often built on nervous, darting rhythms—the ants in your pants that make you dance. Strayhorn is the Vincenzo Bellini of the Big Band era, with arching melodies that suspend themselves over sensual harmonies like a long sigh. “Day Dream” gets my nomination for Most Beautiful Chord Progression in an American Popular Song, as opulent and dappled as anything Fauré ever wrote. And John LaTouche’s lyric captures the early stages of sexual attraction with uncanny sensitivity.
Choosing a group of songs for Michael Spyres was like being at a 4-star smorgasbord with a plate the size of a saucer. He is associated with several of the most fearsome high-wire tenor roles in the repertoire: Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, the title role in Mozart’s Mitridate. He is also a musician of rare eloquence and grace with a functional three-octave range. He was on board not just to evoke my début recital in 1973, but also to represent my deep, longstanding connection to European art song.
I’d heard Michael sing Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été last September, which he delivered with a perfect combination of delicacy and power. The second song, “Le spectre de la rose,” took my breath away that night. It’s a weighty enough piece to stand in for all the heart-stopping French art songs I’ve played—and loved—during my career. To show off Michael’s bel canto chops, I decided on Rossini’s “Addio ai Viennesi,” which is new to me but one of the tenor’s standby showpieces. It will give a taste of his virtuosity and range.
When Michael indicated he’d be open to a third piece—I had been too shy to ask— there followed a flurry of emails, each of us dancing around what he wanted for the “encore” spot. I did what I always do in those situations: I made a playlist of all his suggestions and waited to see which one worked its way into my nervous system. After I found myself belting out the Mario Lanza anthem “Be My Love” for the third time in a day, I realized that it had broken down my resistance. “Schmaltz” is not a word I associate with the super-refined baritenor-warrior-hero Michael Spyres, but I am happy to give him as much chicken fat as he wants. He’s earned it.
The final segment of the concert is what I call a “Cubist self-portrait,” six pieces that shed light on various elements of my musical soul. I’ve had a lifelong attachment to the music of George Gershwin, and felt strongly he needed to be included on the playlist. Some of my most transcendent Gershwin moments have occurred with the pianist/composer John Musto, whom I consider a musical brother. He’s been an important element in my artistic education, but we hadn’t played together for a few years. What better time for a reunion than a Silver Anniversary?
The “Bilbao-Song” is probably the piece I have played the most often in my career. When I was starting out, I was the pianist for the Vienna-born cabaret singer Martha Schlamme, who ended every program with this number. “Bilbao” was also part of her long-running show with Alvin Epstein, A Kurt Weill Cabaret, which enjoyed a Broadway run, an off-Broadway run, and a national tour. Martha understood the depth and meaning of all her songs—from the fanciful to the earth-shattering—and she had a genius for programming. Yes, she could be a maddening colleague, but her artistic insight set me up for life. Will Socolof has his own share of the divine spark, and delivered a great “Bilbao-Song” at Juilliard a few years ago. He also indulged me by replicating Martha’s spoken intro, which he’ll offer again tonight.
“Bilbao” is about recovering lost beauty, symbolized by a song that evokes a beloved, broken-down dive bar—a tawdry Eden. It serves as the prelude to a deep dive into my psyche. Stephen Sondheim’s “Talent” speaks of something close to my heart: the ability to nurture other artists and provide them with a forum to do their best work. That has been one of NYFOS’s guiding principles, and one of my greatest satisfactions in our 35-year history. “The Dance of Life,” by André Previn and Johnny Mercer, addresses the preciousness and brevity of life, a daily preoccupation for those of us eligible for Medicare. Both of these songs are built on a similar two-note rhythmic motif—fast and driving in the Sondheim piece, slow and hypnotic in Previn’s—and both take a brave look at the glories and the limitations of being human. As for “Lucky So-and-So” by Duke Ellington—well, that cuts directly to the core of who I am. I don’t need to be told to count my blessings.
In September of 1972, the baritone Alan Titus heard me play one aria—“Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville—and hired me on the spot to play a concert with him the next February. This “Lana Turner discovered in the diner” moment happened at my very first New York gig, when I was filling in for another pianist at a staging rehearsal. I was just 20 years old. I spent the next 50 years surrounded by musicians—mainly singers—who expanded my world as an artist and taught me how to be generous, how to listen, how to unlock the secret garden hidden in every song. I wouldn’t know where to begin a tribute to my wonderful colleagues. The mezzo-sopranos alone break the memory bank: Stephanie Blythe, Sasha Cooke, Cecilia Bartoli, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Susan Graham, Kate Lindsey, Frederica von Stade….and Lucia Bradford.
Nor do I know how to make one concert sum up a half century of performances. I think back to my days with Martha Schlamme. She was prone to singing seven or eight encores, tantamount to another half-program after closing with the “Bilbao Song.” One evening as we returned backstage after encore number seven, she excitedly proposed another. It was our second show that night, the clock said 12:30 a.m., and I cautiously suggested we call it quits. She looked stricken. “But I wouldn’t want to rob them of my ‘Surabaya Johnny!’” I sighed at this quintessential Martha moment, knowing that after the sadness of “Surabaya” we’d bow again, and after a “Well, I can’t leave you there, can I?”, she would launch into a cheerful up-tempo number which I could only hope would be the last.
I won’t hold you hostage tonight. In fact, I’ve embedded my encore into the program, “Holding You In My Arms” by the pianist-composer-theremin virtuoso Rob Schwimmer. With that piece I shall embrace each of you, thank you for your kindness and your inspiring receptivity to music, and assure you that there is still more to come. I’m already planning my Emerald Anniversary in 2028.