Since the pandemic I have come to place a high value on two contradictory things; my alone time, and my musical communion with colleagues. The annual NYFOS@North Fork concert comes at the end of August, just when my need for alone time is at its most intense. I yearn to spend my time reading, napping, and consuming quarts of gazpacho. But it is also the moment when most singers have a gap in their schedule, and when the idea of spending a calm week in the beauty of a seaside town has a special appeal. In addition, the audience out here clamors for these concerts—since 2013 NYFOS@North Fork is one of the big events of the season.
Ah, well. Alone time can wait. Clearly it’s time to make some music.
Before Covid, I used to invite a quartet of singers out for the show. But after the gap year of 2020, I’ve kept it to two—it allows me a deeper experience with each of the singers. I had my usual trepidations: last year, Nicoletta Berry and Sam Kidd’s concert of French songs killed it, setting a high bar for this year’s venture. Could we ever match that elegance, that musical classiness? I lucked out: I engaged the tenor César Parreño for an all-Latin American program, and he suggested the Bolivian soprano Shelén Hughes as his co-star. They each had one week free—the week I needed—and we sealed the deal.
There was one catch: I had never met or heard Shelén. I listened to a couple of clips on YouTube in which she sounded just fine, but otherwise she was an unknown quantity. I took her on faith for several reasons: César was enthusiastic, and I trust him implicitly; my communications with Shelén showed her to be a woman of superlative sensitivity and intelligence; and she had passed muster with my colleagues at Juilliard, where she will be starting the high-level Artist Diploma program next month. That audition is one of the most rigorous in the country, and I had every reason to believe Shelén was an artist of interest.
Of course, she is all of that, and more. She’s got a sound I would describe as “adorable,” she’s a fine musician, her tuning is perfect, and she’s a dream colleague. Both of us were a little gingerly with each other today, but she released more and more heat as the afternoon progressed (either fire or warmth as the songs needed)—and I can tell there’s a lot more to come. She’s a beautiful song partner.
As for César, he is turning into a force-of nature, take-no-hostages singer. I’ve known him for four years now, and watched him develop from a promising, somewhat naive neophyte into a powerhouse performer with an irresistiblesound. I have come to count on César for his warm, generous way with a song and his deep intuition about music. After a summer in Aspen, his voice has taken on a bit more size, and when he was singing in close harmony with Shelén in a Cuban duet, he was overpowering her a bit. Her line was low in her range, his somewhat high. I try to exercise tact—it’s the first day and I don’t want to suppress the energy in the room. “César, let Shelén have the melody, ok, queridoI?” We do the song again. Still imbalanced. “César, leave Shelén a little….more space, ok?” Finally, after the third time, I said, “César, don’t sing so damned loud!” “Ohhh, that’s what you meant….! OK!” Subtlety is great, but sometimes you just have to get to the point.
Can’t wait for tomorrow.