NYFOS@Caramoor 2024: Day 2

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published March 13, 2024

I am not quite sure how it happened, but the day started with a conversation between me, Bénédicte, and the cast. It began with them debriefing us excitedly about their previous night out at a restaurant with a patron, and then veered off into a variety of unexpected directions. I knew we should be getting to work, but there was no way I was going to cut this bull session short. No, I cannot share the content. Suffice it to say that we all know each other a lot better now than we did twelve hours ago, and that my eyebrows were raised so high that I don’t expect them to come down till Thursday.
This was the day when our tenor,, Scott Rubén La Marca, had to be at a rehearsal at Manhattan School of Music. His absence gave the three others singers more leisure to coach their music, and we covered a lot of ground. Each song is a world unto it itself, each of our singers a complex blend of things they do brilliantly and things they need help with. In this compressed, intense week of rehearsal, Béné and I end up using the songs as a way of helping our artists break through their barriers. I have a missionary’s zeal that if they can get these songs right, everything else they sing will benefit. 
No pressure. 
All of our singers come from opera programs, and while they know perfectly well that song demands more intimate and personal communication, the constant need to cut through an orchestra or impress an audition panel can leave an unwanted imprint on the way they make music: an ingrained habit of “big delivery” which can make their phrasing somewhat stiff. To counteract that, I sometimes go through a song with them and improvise a new accompaniment, something less formal, more freewheeling, a bit less rigid in tempo. Same music, same vocal line, but more relaxed. The most fun is when Bénédicte plays the printed score and I dance around it in a kind of fantasy improv.  This worked wonders with Sophia Baete, who has a tremendous flair for American popular music. (She’s singing Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” in our recital, and she’s knocking it out of the park.) In classical music she is extremely impressive too—I mean, that sound!—but she is so scrupulous about being accurate and true to the score that she almost needs to be encouraged to be sloppier. Sloppiness happens to be one of my greatest skills, so I am the right person knock the starch out of Sophia’s phrasing. 
One size does not fit all. Shan, our beautiful soprano, always needs more interpretive specificity. I applied Talmudic questioning to her Granados song. “You’re in Venus’s garden, right? Why? Do you come there every day? Does Venus appear all the time, or is today special? Does she know you’re there? What do you want?” It took a few tries, but suddenly the music flickered to life in the most astounding way. Her voice began to spin and shine, her breath flowed, and Venus appeared. 
In many ways Michael is her opposite—he has almost too many thoughts, and thoughts about thoughts, and considerations about his thoughts about thoughts. I appreciate his complexity—it’s fascinating. But I feel he sometimes needs a knife to cut through his mental Gordian knot, and I am happy to be his musical moyel. “Your lover saw how smitten you were and used it to hurt you. Go.” And suddenly Granados’s “Amor y odio” emerges with all its wounded nostalgia. Until…the return of the A section, which Michael attacks too abruptly. “Michael, you don’t need to sing forte just because you started softly.” “Understood,” he answers. “I’m just so used to singing Mozart, where you’re supposed to vary every repetition of the melody.” “I get it. Fine. But not here.” “Understood.”

I have played such a long time that I feel I have been exactly where each of these artists has been.And it ain’t over—their issues continue to crop up in my creative life, sometimes taking on new disguises. Collaborative pianists don’t merely listen to the singer. They have to become the singer. And the same, I find, is true for voice coaches. Empathy is my lantern, experience my best teacher. 

PICTURED: Sophia Baete at tea-time

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 has contributed many Song of the Day entries.


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