NYFOS@Caramoor 2022: Day 3

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published March 10, 2022

Wednesday is a good day to play hardball at rehearsal. Soon we’ll need to move into performance mode, which involves a subtle IV-drip of inspiration and encouragement. We mustn’t do anything to hurt the cast’s confidence over the weekend, and as they grapple with memorization their performances will start to become less malleable. But for about 24 more hours we can wheedle, instruct, insist, remind, and do whatever we can to get each song where we want it to be. Judged by those standards, we had a very good day. Songs that were black-and-white yesterday were now in color. 
Our cast is not just conservatory-trained, but Juilliard-conservatory trained. This means they come into the room with a high level of musical skill and linguistic knowledge, not to mention sensationally beautiful voices. What’s a little hard for them—and for many young artists—is to balance their schooling with a sense of fantasy, and especially a sense of the ridiculous. But song thrives on fantasy, and French song requires something else they don’t talk about at Juilliard (especially these days): sensuality. We’re doing a song by Darius Milhaud with a text by Jean Cocteau, a dada-ist ragtime piece called “Caramel mou.” You can’t sing it like Mozart. It needs the wit of a comedian, the swagger of a chansonnier. It needs to be goofy. Bénédicte, of course, shows them how to find those qualities in the language—-she breaks it all down with a skill that takes my breath away. My method is more pragmatic and experiential: I sing their lines for them, dredging up my best Maurice Chevalier/Yves Montand impressions. I apparently have no trouble finding my sense of the ridiculous, as I trill my Edith Piaf-style “r’s” to absurd lengths—“J’ai connu un homme trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrès malheureux en amourrrrrrrrrrrrr,” I purred today. It got results. 
We’re also doing a Poulenc duet called “Colloque,” in which man complains to his partner that the magic has gone out of their relationship (and implies that it’s her fault). She responds that—au contraire—she has lost none of the deep connection she has always felt for him. Seonho Yu and Mer Wohlgemuth were singing it with tremendous elegance, but the scene wasn’t quite happening. Before they ran the piece, I beckoned Mer over to me. I whispered to her, “When you sing your part, just seduce him.” I then sat back to watch and listen. Mer didn’t do anything ostentatious, but the dynamic was utterly changed, and at the end Seonho looked at her with a fascinating mix of emotions. Meredith stretched out her hand, he observed it, and the song was…over. We told Seonho that we were not going to decide for him whether or not to take her hand—that was up to him. Yesterday “Colloque” was a lovely, slightly flaccid French art song. Today, a cliffhanger—what’s going to happen? Can’t wait to see it tomorrow. 

Natalie Lewis was wrestling with a Poulenc masterpiece called “Tu vois le feu du soir.” It’s his longest song and a bear to perform—somewhat rambling and hard to organize. And absolutely ravishing. There are two ways to approach it: to break it down and find the color for each image in the song (and there are a lot of them), or go into a kind of trance state and sing it like an oracle, building it in one long arc. We’d already done a fair amount of method #1 on Monday and Tuesday. Bénédicte is the pianist for this piece, so I was watching Natalie from out front. It dawned on me that she was somewhat overwhelmed by the welter of details in Paul Eluard’s poem. I could also see that Béné’s energy was sagging and she needed backup (as I would later on, when she returned the favor). So I took up the reins and proposed the broader approach, using Poulenc’s music as a kind of prayer or incantation. It worked for Natalie, who began to channel the majesty of Jessye Norman as she worked her way through this chef d’oeuvre. 

I’ll save my stories about César Parreño, Seonho Yu, and Francesco Barfoed (a sensational piano partner who saves my butt on an hourly basis) for the next few days. Suffice it to say that their art gives me hope for the future. 
The musicians supplied us with plenty of lovely surprises, but the loveliest one arrived courtesy of Tim Coffee (“Mr. Coffee,” as he’s sometimes known), the Artistic Planning Manager at Caramoor. When we came in for our traditional 4 PM tea break, Tim had brought out the elegant china set from the dining room, as well as a three-tier cake server. As I write these words, they seem impossibly twee, especially in a perilous world where so many are being deprived of the basic necessities of life. But that only makes me treasure these moments—these precious, civilized moments of communion—all the more. Tim is a human being who radiates good karma, and his kindness propelled us safely to the end of a long, demanding day. Bénédicte’s mother summed it all up: “People like him—they are rare. They make the world better. And we need more of them.” 
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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