“What did you do on your two-week vacation from Juilliard?” people ask.
“I worked,” I answer.
“Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Well, I was at Caramoor, doing the Vocal Rising Stars program…” I tell them.
“Ohhh…well, that’s different! Wow, congratulations!”
I look forward to this week every year. I get to spend every day out of the city, preparing a program with five hand-picked artists (four singers and a pianist)—and, in recent years, with master-coach Bénédicte Jourdois at my side. I mean this quite literally—she drives the van back and forth from Manhattan to Katonah every day, and I would accept practically any gig that included a pair of hour-long car-rides with Béné. She’s a force of nature, a cauldron of culture, and one of the dearest and funniest people on earth.
This is the 15th VRS program—we debuted in 2009 with Paul Appleby and Joélle Harvey in the cast, some years before they became Met stars—and I have come to understand the deep value of this week. It blends the promise of the future—the distant arrival of the warm months, the blossoming of the young artists—with the weight of tradition—all the years I’ve spent in Caramoor’s music room using song as a way to open young musicians to the possibilities within themselves, and shower audiences with songs from all over the world.
That isn’t a figure of speech: our show this year, “Mediterranean,” is a musical trip from Spain to Israel, with stops in six other countries and a total of nine languages—not just the usual European ones, but also Catalan, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Neapolitan. This is a record for NYFOS, beating out “Ports of Call” in 2021, which had a mere eight. Needless to say, it’s taken a small phalanx of specialist coaches to get the Lebanese, Israeli, and Greek songs ready—and we’re preparing for our dear friend Albert Carbonell to arrive on Thursday to check in on the Catalan.
The first day offered a tantalizing view of how good this show could be. Soprano Shelén Hughes, mezzo-soprano Maggie Reneé, tenor Colin Aikins, and baritone Joseph Parrish are super-talents, and each of them gave glimpses of their magic. Yes, there is a lot to get done in six days before our Sunday concert at Katonah. Maggie, Colin, and Shelén were sick last week, just when they’d hoped to be studying and memorizing. But the beauty of Caramoor is that they are in a calm place with not just a multitude of pianos, but also a pianist at their disposal—Yihao Zhou, who is the fifth Rising Star. The group made startling progress from 11:30 AM to 7 PM today, and the music is already beginning to take wing.
I’ve worked with all five of these performers at Juilliard, but it’s interesting for all of us to see one another in a new setting. Today I illustrated how a moment should go in a Verdi trio and I apparently flipped into my Italian opera mode, making a hand gesture and a facial expression I must have picked up from tenor Carlo Bergonzi when I was 13 years old. It stopped Joseph Parrish, who has known me for a few years, in his tracks. “I’ve never seen you do that before, that’s something I won’t forget,” he said with wonder. “Oh Joseph, you know I grew up on this stuff,” I said, wondering if I’d embarrassed myself or impressed him. Probably both.
I had a moment to confer with Yihao today—all of our previous time together has been spent over music. I asked him how long he’d been in this country, since he had told us at lunch he was born in China. “Ten years.” “But…you must have learned English before you came…?” “Actually, no, I learned it all here after I arrived.” “How is that possible? You have no foreign accent!” “Thank you for saying that! No, I needed to learn fast when I was in school, just so kids wouldn’t make fun of me. It was sink or swim.” “But still…I mean, Bénédicte has lived in America far longer than you, and she still has her French accent.” “Sure, Steve, but frankly, if I had that accent I wouldn’t want to lose it! Why would you ever want to speak any other way?”
Over tea, a daily ritual at 4 PM, Maggie asked if we’d still love her if she sprayed a cupcake with Reddi-Wip. I assured her that our love was unconditional. She proceeded to aerosol the world’s tiniest cupcake with several coatings of canned whipped cream. She declared it a total success.
And so was our first day—we’ve got a big journey ahead, but the feeling couldn’t be sweeter.
In picture above: Maggie Reneé, with Reddi-Wip and cupcake; in the background, Bénédicte Jourdois and (hidden by spray can) Tim Coffee.