NYFOS@Juilliard Rorem Project: Post 1

2023 NYFOS@Juilliard artists

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published January 11, 2024

I have had a lot of good times doing my annual Juilliard concerts, a tradition since 2006. But I had not anticipated how much fun I would have with this year’s show, Ned at 100: A Rorem Celebration. It is a revamped revival of a concert we did ten years ago, appropriately named Ned at Ninety. The Great Man himself, composer Ned Rorem, was with us for the performance, it was sold out, and it went extremely well. After Ned’s death last year I knew I would have to mark his centennial, and that Juilliard was the right place to do so. Lo and behold, duty turned to joy: I am rediscovering Ned’s music—for the first time, in his absence—and am finding new beauties and depths that I had previously experienced more intellectually than emotionally. I was always a little anxious about pleasing Ned, and I now understand that kept me from submitting fully to his songs. This time around they are casting a powerful spell on me. 
It’s only been two days, but there have been some mind-boggling moments in rehearsal. After running “My Sad Captains,” a vocal quartet with two-piano accompaniment, I felt it was beautifully sung but a bit generic. I fastened on one section, where the lyrics by Thom Gunn say:
“They were men
who, I thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion.”
“What do you think that means?” I asked the singers, having told them earlier that I felt the song was about the AIDS crisis. 
“Well,” said one, “I think it’s about the stereotype of gay men who are thought to be oversexed and indiscriminate.” Another said, “It’s also about the way people tended—maybe still tend—to blame them for their own deaths.” And I pointed out the phrase “I thought,” as if to say that it was an idea the poet had reconsidered. I also said that “hot convulsion” had always suggested to me the fever of creativity, not just random sexual encounters. I was surprised and gratified to see how frank and open they were as they talked about a sensitive subject. They weren’t alive in the 80s and 90s, but they clearly had deep feelings about what it felt like to be gay in that era. 
Then they sang the piece again, and it was transformed. It is very hard to describe the difference—yes, it was more flexible, less by-the-books, but also more personal and more immediately understandable. More beautiful, more tender, and more blended. Celestial. This is a result you can never get if you confine yourself to music talk: loud-soft-fast-slow-flat-sharp. When everyone is telling the same story, the magic can emerge. And it did. 
Shavon, Kerrigan, and Sophia don’t need me to explain this. They already know. Our work, even on day one, was more subtle and refined. Each of them is playing a gallery of characters during the concert, and while they sing the bejeezus out of all their numbers, some of the theatrical demands come more naturally to them than others. Sophia needed some help with Desirée from A Little Night Music; Kerrigan is looking for a way to play Venus, as conceived by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash (and created for Mary Martin, America’s sweetheart); and Shavon is finding his way into a very funny, very off-color song by Irving Berlin called “Through a Keyhole,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. 

Pictured: tenor Jack Hicks, director Jen Pitt, and piano-partner Francesco Barfoed. More about them tomorrow. 

Ned at 100: A Rorem Celebration will be performed at The Peter Jay Sharp Theater at The Juilliard School on Thursday, January 18, 7:30PM. Tickets and livestream available here.

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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