NYFOS@Caramoor 2022: Day 6

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published March 14, 2022

We had to move our dress rehearsal from Caramoor to my house. The weather was predicted to be bad—yesterday we already saw signs on the highway asking us to stay off the roads during the storm. We woke up to find that they had been right. It was a very nasty day, with horizontal snow on and off from 11 till early evening. Bénédicte has been driving me, her 5-week old baby, and her mother back and forth from Manhattan every day, but she draws the line at icy roads. So Caramoor hired a car service and piled the five performers into a van. I hauled my electric piano up from the basement, and we were in business.
I admit it was nice to hear them sing in a small space. I could hear the results of the work they’d been doing all week, and the ensemble blend was stunning at times, rich and vibrant. Sitting behind them onstage, I miss that beauty in the hall. Béné and I also heard their mistakes up close and personal, so we had a chance to correct some wrong notes (grr), plead for a greater dynamic contrast here and there, and run a Dustbuster over the French vowels again. By Saturday, this is like throwing the linguine against the wall. You just wait to see what sticks and hope for the best.
We’d been quietly coping with a dilemma all week: while we’ve been living in a peaceful cocoon, there is a massive disaster occurring across the Atlantic. We wanted to acknowledge it, but how? At rehearsal on Thursday I got an email from Richard Rosen, the president of the NYFOS Board. Bringing the issue to a head, he asked if we could include a Ukrainian song on Tuesday. Clearly we couldn’t hide from the problem any more.
This close to the concert, a song was definitely a bridge too far, but…wait, how about a Ukrainian piano piece? Who were the great Ukrainian composers?

I asked Francesco to dig around and he came up with a composer—Reinhold Glière, a native of Kiev—who wrote a beautiful two-piano “Valse triste” that broke our hearts. But wait…Glière studied in Moscow, and is known as a Soviet composer, not a Ukrainian. Would that mean he’s off-limits? We didn’t want to step in any unforeseen geo-political dog-doo.

We had to ask someone, but who? Ah! Gina Levinson, the Russian coach at Juilliard! She’d be our litmus test. She knows Russian history and she is not shy about her opinions. I reached her after dinner on Thursday and explained the issue.

“Glière?” she exclaimed in her beloved Borscht-soaked accent. “He was from Kiev? I had no idea. So, Ukrainian.” “But he studied in Moscow…” “Of course! Anyone who wanted to be a composer studied in Moscow. They had the best conservatories!” “But he was for the Soviet Republic…Would he have been anti-Ukrainian independence?” “Has nothing to DO with what’s going on now! Nothing! Look, Steve, he was DEAD when Putin came to power. No, you MUST do this song. You MUST. People will LOVE it. He was very good composer.” “We have your blessing?” “Of course.”

The three-minute waltz comes at the top of the show, replacing the exuberant Dvorak “Slavonic Dance #1.” Glière’s graceful sadness speaks to the moment so much better, functioning like a prayer for peace, a prayer for the refugees, and most of all a prayer for those who have stayed behind to fight.

I’m so grateful to Francesco for finding it. It won’t end the war, but it is cathartic, a lightning rod for our feelings.

Two hours later we got to the zarzuela duet in the run-through. We realized that we did not have a flower for Mer to throw at César’s feet—it’s a crucial prop in the song. Natalie handed Mer a banana to use instead, which she carefully laid on the floor near César at the appropriate moment. César, of course, bent over, smelled it, pressed it to his heart, and almost succeeded in keeping a straight face.

We have a show.

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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