NYFOS@Caramoor 2024: Day 3

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published March 14, 2024

Wednesday has a special significance in a week-long residency. On Monday you do reconnaissance. On Tuesday you start to figure out where the doors and windows are, which latches are open, and what’s movable. On Wednesday, having a sense of how far each artist can go—and what’s in their way—Bénédicte Jourdois and I charge in like the Art Song Brigade. For two people educated in such different ways she and I hear things with astounding unanimity. Today soprano Shan Hai and pianist Amber Scherer had been bashing away at a difficult song: Milhaud’s “A Cupidon,” which ends with an a cadence on an extended high D melting into an extended high Bb. Only a few singers can even dream of doing this piece well, and Shan is one of them. I let Béné do most of the coaching, feeling that one demanding parent-figure was enough for any duo. But as we were winding things up there was one still thing that still bothered me—a climactic spot where there needed to be a crescendo and a slight slowing down. The problem was that Milhaud had not put any markings on that measure, and Amber’s Juilliard training had made her leery of doing anything not specifically written in the score. You can get nailed for that at my school. (Though not in my studio, and not in Béné’s either.)

I was onstage, Béné was in the hall, and it seemed that singer and pianist had probably absorbed all the instruction on this three-minute song they could use. But in my (temporary) role as good cop, I gently raised my voice. “If I could just say one thing…ladies? At the bottom of page 10…” And before I could finish Bénédicte shouted, “Yes! Yes! Exactly what I was going to say! It needs a crescendo! She’s on a high C! She’s telling Cupid that his arrow landed in the WRONG PLACE!” “Um, yes,” I murmured, “so…keep the build going?” Amber considers it. “I know it’s not marked,” I purr. “But…” “Just do it!” says Béné.

There were too many breakthroughs today to catalogue all of them. We gave a very girly song—“J’ai deux amants” from André Messager’s boulevard comedy “L’amour masqué”—to our very un-girly tenor. Why? Well, we wanted to include the song but longed for a new take on it after so many stereotypical performances by big-name divas. The character’s name in the show is “Elle,” now re-christened “Elmer” for our concert. The piece is about how Elle/Elmer soaks her/his two lovers for more and more money by creating competition, an almost-Marxist approach to being a kept woman/man. But what was Scott going to do with this piece of perfumed frou-frou?

It’s hard to describe his interpretation. Let’s just say it’s not exactly campy, it’s not explicitly gay, it’s not obviously flirtatious, but it’s a little of all of those things, and amazingly subtle. Sly, that’s the word. But this is a song where you have to distinguish between the chatty parts (explaining the scheme) and the languorous parts (demonstrating the charms the two men are purchasing). These elements are very obvious to me and Béné, who have known it for decades—her grandmother sang it to her, for heaven’s sake!—but Scott wasn’t consistently differentiating the colors. The story was not quite zesty enough, the refrain not languid enough. At one point I stopped them—Amber was playing—and without having any conscious idea of what I was up to it swanned into the refrain Steve-style, slow, a bit lascivious, self-indulgent. Scott said, “Ohhhh…it needs to be sexy.” “Yes. You have to come on to the audience a little. Maybe there’s another sugar-daddy or two out there.” “I can do that.” “Of course you can,” I answered.

Occasionally you realize that even a very sophisticated singer might be lacking a crucial cultural reference. Case in point: Michael Hawk was working on Poulenc’s “La belle jeunesse” and it was going great, but I sensed something was missing. “Michael…this character…he’s what they used to call a lovable rogue. A scamp! It just needs a touch of Maurice Chevalier…You’ve heard Chevalier?” “Um, no.” Then it hit me—almost no one under the age of 50 knows Chevalier, at least not in America. He’s still a French icon, but his movie career began in France 1912, peaked in 1958 with “Gigi,” and ended in 1967 with a movie called “Monkeys, Go Home” where he actually co-starred with four monkeys. Still, his trademark “hon-hon-hon” would be something that any Frenchman of Poulenc’s era would know, and most people today would not. “I totally get it. But give him a listen. You don’t want to sing this song like Chevalier, but you ought to sing it like someone who has heard him. You’ll know what I mean.” “I’ll send you some clips by email tonight,” Béné chimes in.

Later on Michael sang his Granados song with such emotional truth that he stopped time. It’s not so easy for him to be simple, and I was so moved that I was close to tears. “There’s the artist,” I said softly, thinking of Tosca—“Ecco un artista!” Meanwhile Sophia continues to levitate the entire Music Room when she sings Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” and she gave Janet Baker a run for her money with her French art song.

There’s still a ton of work to get done and not a lot of rehearsal time. I am entering Anxious Dad Mode, a typical Wednesday night terror. But when I think about what we did in six hours today, I take heart. After all, plants need water, but they grow when you aren’t watching them.

PICTURED: Scott Rubén La Marca, Shan Hai, Amber Scherer, Sophia Baete, still smiling after a day with Bénédicte and Steve. 

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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