NYFOS@Caramoor 2022: Day 2

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published March 9, 2022

Bénédicte and I had a master plan for the day that involved working on every song in the show. Since Love Songs in 176 Keys is a slightly longer program than usual, our idea was wildly ambitious. Still, it is always smart to front-load the work, tackling as much as possible in the first few days of our short rehearsal period. I’ve known most of these songs for decades, while the cast has known them for a few weeks. But my dream—and Bénédicte’s—is to elicit performances from them that rival the ones we have in our memories, in our ears, in our imaginations.

A cheval, as Béné might say—let’s get to work. 

Typically the task falls into three categories: linguistic, musical, and vocal. But it all starts with the poem. If a singer can take possession the lyrics of a song—sing them convincingly as his or her own thoughts—everything else becomes more malleable. This sounds simple: you translate the poem, someone tells you how it’s pronounced, and you’re done, right? But of course that is just the beginning. How would this character say those words? What line-reading did the composer offer, along with what expressive markings? What did poem mean when it was written, and what does it mean now? What images and feelings does it evoke for you? 

Sometimes one simple word can unlock a song. In Roussel’s “Sarabande,” the singer is addressing a woman using “tu”—the familiar form of “you,” of course. The  story in the song falls easily into place when a man is the singer, but for our soprano Mer Wohlgemuth it would necessitate a decision. Something was missing in her performance, which was absolutely lovely but too innocent for Béné’s and my taste, too sweet. 

The song talks about a sexual encounter outdoors—pretty hot stuff, in a French art song way. So to whom is she talking—who is this “tu”? And for that matter, who is Mer going to be in this drama? Is she playing a man, or is she a woman hooking up with another woman? Both are possible, but I came up with a third idea: what if she were speaking to herself, fantasizing about an affair, imagining the details, observing herself in a deliciously compromising position? “You will wear this, you will do that…” It struck me as the strongest choice. 

This kind of imaginative work needs time to soak into the performance—ideally, four to six weeks. We have five to seven days. But I wager that Mer’s “Sarabande” in New York next Tuesday will be light years away from today’s performance. 

A small accident led to an interesting result today. I am somewhat allergic to pepper, and occasionally it bothers me—not reliably enough to expunge it from my diet altogether, but something I need to watch out for. I managed to inhale a bit of pepper at lunch and it took about two hours of coughing and sneezing and throat-clearing to calm my body down. It was really my fault for being inattentive. (I should add that the food has been wonderful at Caramoor—there was a sensational mild vegetable curry today that rocked my world.)

When I got back to the piano I couldn’t speak reliably without a volley of coughing, not to mention a veritable Old Faithful erupting from my nose and my eyes. So instead of using words, I resorted to the piano for a while to illustrate what I wanted in the phrasing and color. My voice eventually came back, but I cherished that 45-minute span when I had to coach non-verbally, using only my music. 
There were a lot of peak moments, but the highest peak didn’t involve any of the Rising Stars at all. Bénédicte and I have a duet in this show, a famous piece by Enrique Granados called “Andaluza.” While it’s not technically difficult, it does involve a fairly romantic approach to tempo—the push and pull we call “rubato.” And Spanish rubato is notable for especially strong cross-currents where the music speeds up and slows down. Béné and I had never played together in all the years we’ve known one another, and all eyes were on us when we sat down at our two pianos to work on “Andaluza.” 
“Chase me, Béné,” I proposed. Just to be a good colleague, I added, “And I’ll chase you.” 
D’accord, Steve,” she answered.
We challenged each other, bending the rhythm, playing with dynamics—yet somehow we were moving as a unit, a single, delicious paella of Granados goodness. It made my day.

At lunchtime Ellie Gisler Murphy, a member of the Caramoor artistic team, showed up to say hello. She’s out on maternity leave, and she brought her two-month old baby Rowan with her. Bénédicte brought her five-week old son Aenéas over. The two tykes had a summit meeting, and the world was a sweeter place. 

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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