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Song of the Day: May 5

Juilliard castTo celebrate our final NYFOS After Hours of the season, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” which took place this Monday, May 2nd at Henry’s Restaurant, we asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate the Song of the Day blog. Today’s entry is from tenor Gerard Schneider.



Iris (Pietro Mascagni) – Oh, come al tuo sottile corpo s’aggira

Today, I have chosen to write about the Act II love duet, ‘Oh, come al tuo sottile corpo s’aggira’, from Pietro Mascagni’s 1896 opera, Iris. In an opera full of truly beautiful music – the serenade, ‘Apri la tua finestra’, and ‘Inno al Sole’ as prime examples – this duet stands as a crowning achievement of both Mascagni’s genius and the verismo canon.

The story of Iris is indeed a strange one; the young lord Osaka stages a puppet-show with the help of a brothel-keeper in order to kidnap the eponymous heroine. Convincing Iris that she has been taken away to Yoshiwara, a land of paradise, Osaka tries to seduce her but fails to make her yield to his advances. Tired and annoyed by the simplicity of the girl, Osaka leaves her in the hands of Kyoto, the brothel- owner, who exposes her on a balcony of the brothel. There, she is found and cursed by her blind father, who knew nothing of the abduction and thought he had been abandoned by her. Overwhelmed by shame, Iris throws herself into an abyss.

Premiered a full six years before Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Iris was a collaboration between Pietro Mascagni and Luigi Illica; the latter the famed librettist of Andrea Chenier, La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. In line with the fin-de- siecle fascination with the orient, Illica raised the idea of creating a work in the Japanese style as a response to Italian symbolism. Mascagni met the project ‘with great enthusiasm that had no equal’ and immersed himself in the Japanese harmonic style. This led to the inclusion of eastern percussion, including gongs, and use of the whole tone scale in the piece. This is further illustrated by the cyclical nature of the work, beginning and ending with the Inno al sole or Hymn to the Sun.

At first glance ‘Oh, come al tuo sottile corpo s’aggira’ can easily be dismissed a series of disjointed arias for tenor and soprano. It is on further inspection that the listener can identify the rich, overarching themes present throughout the duet, as well as Illica’s subtle and inventive usage of metaphor. An example of the latter is seen in Un di ero piccina, the point in the duet in which Iris becomes truly fearful or her captor when confronted by his desire to give her pleasure.  Iris describes a wooden screen she has seen in a Buddhist temple when she was a child, depicting an octopus coiling its tentacles around a young woman and pleasuring her, which later leads to her death. This episode is inspired by Hokusai’s 1814 woodcut relief, ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’ off ‘Kinoe no Komatsu’, and foreshadows the final fate of Iris.

Once performed more often than Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Iris has fallen largely out of favour. This is due in part to criticisms concerning the dark nature of the work and Illica’s depiction of Japan as a place of fantasy rather than the more authentic realization present in Butterfly. Desperate to avoid the classic melodrama of contemporaneous opera, Mascagni chose to utilize melodic invention and richness of instrumental details to enhance his desired sense of exoticism. This led to further criticisms that the work is not accessible and didn’t complement Mascagni’s existing compositions. Whether a listener chooses to agree with these opinions or not, there is no questions that Iris is an underestimated and oft overlooked masterpiece of the verismo repertoire.

Gerard will appear as Osaka in Mascagni’s “Iris” at the 2016 Bard Summerscape Festival, directed by James Darrah and conducted by Leon Botstein.

Song of the Day: May 2

Juilliard castIn anticipation of our final NYFOS After Hours of the season tonight, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” we’ve asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate this week’s Song of the Day. Come out to see them at 10pm tonight, Monday, May 2nd at HENRY’s Restaurant! Today’s entry is from tenor Samuel Levine.


“Come, Let Us Go Back to God”–Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers

In art, as in life, there are moments that change everything – moments that, in hindsight, divide our histories into “before” or “after.” Whether it’s falling in love or the fall of the Berlin Wall, the moment happens once, and then nothing is the same. Usually, memory shapes our view of things so that they look differently in hindsight than they did in the moment, but once in a great while, a camera or a microphone is rolling, and the moment of transformation is captured.

Picture, if you will, in Los Angeles in 1951, a packed room with no natural light, filled with men on two sides of studio soundproof glass: the Jewish men in the booth on one side working the sound board, and the Black men on the other side, singing around a single microphone. The minor record label, Specialty Records, was holding largely unheralded recording session for an established Gospel group, The Soul Stirrers, to feature their new, 20-year-old lead singer. The lead-in starts, the back-up singers start harmonizing, all pianissimo, all “ooh,” and after fifty-five seconds, Sam Cooke steps up to the microphone and begins to sing. American music would never be the same.


Sam Cooke had a voice and an artistry like no other. His tenor oozes a liquid, golden sweetness that caresses the inner ear, and his effortless style, smooth delivery, and endless, unfathomable elegance are downright sexy. There’s just something about his singing, about the instrument itself, some divine simplicity filled with longing, somehow simultaneously perfectly balanced and also reaching for something unattainable. As a tenor, and a student of the tenor voice and its history, I find Cooke’s voice to be the most beautiful tenor voice ever recorded.

But there’s more to him than that. Cooke composed; was an astute businessman; he founded a record label, as well as a publishing company, both of ground-breaking for a Black artist at that time; and was active in the struggle for civil rights. Both Black and white audiences loved his songs, something unheard of previously. Now, he is called the “inventor of soul music,” by which means: what we think of as Soul music, the Motown sound that inspired the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, which would eventually inspire the birth of Hip Hop and R & B, and influence every kind of modern popular music, would be
unimaginable without the work of Sam Cooke. His were the shoulders upon which Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, James Brown, Beyonce, or Kanye West stood, and stand. In my opinion, Cooke gets plenty of credit for his performing and recording career, but not nearly enough for the developments he brought into American musical and cultural life.

Cooke did have quite the career, though. Some of his songs, like “(What a) Wonderful World” has become a Hollywood staple of young love, and the jaw-dropping “A Change is Gonna Come,” which Cooke wrote himself, has become an anthem of the American Civil Rights Movements, and remains a touchstone for social justice activism; other hits, like his breakout “You Send Me,” “Chain Gang,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” “Another Saturday Night,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away” survive as near-perfect distillations of soul music at its best: they astonish us aesthetically, while seemingly defying us to keep from moving our hips. His rapturous “Nothing Can Change This Love” was the first dance at my wedding. By the time of his death at age 33 in 1964, he had over thirty Top 40 Hits to his credit. His voice, his compositions, and his songs linger in the ear and in the American imagination.

Yet Cooke lived hard, and there’s no disputing that, at the time of his sudden death, some of the bloom and beauty of his voice had faded, the victim of late nights, bad habits, and a grueling schedule. And then that sudden death: he was shot dead by a hotel manager in Los Angeles, under what can mildly be described as dubious circumstances, once again robbing Americans of a Black icon of the 1960s through violent means.


But let’s rewind. Before the shooting, before the hits and the fame, before all of the events and work that elevate him in popular and musical memory, Sam Cooke was the son of a preacher man (no, really, he was) from Mississippi. And he got his start just as you might expect: in the church. He was performing regularly by age six, and continued on throughout childhood and adolescence, always with Gospel groups. His big break would come before his twentieth birthday.

It was 1950, and the 19-year-old Samuel Cook (the “e” was added later) was hired to replace a prominent member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers, R. H. Harris, after his retirement. Though confined to Gospel’s niche market, the group was a major force in American music– they’d performed at the White House, recorded Billboard hits, and performed all over the country, making soulful, technically sophisticated music, and developing as tremendous in Black Christian music. They were stars. As such, this job was a big, big break for the soon-to-be superstar, and the recordings from this time prove the point. In 1951, Specialty invited them to lay down some tracks.

And there we are again, in that dark room. Cooke steps up to the microphone. In hindsight it’s easy to see this, but with the entrance of that voice, an era of American music was over: segregation.

And not just Black/white segregation! At the time of this recording, there was a sharp, irreconcilable divide between sacred and secular music in the Black community… a musical artist either “had religion,” or did not, and audiences followed one or the other, according to their own religious leanings. Yet here was a Christian artist who could not confine himself to the Church: his goal was to reach as many people as possible, and he couldn’t do that while restricting himself to Black sacred listeners only. In a few years, he would strike out on his own, singing secular music, but bringing the musical sensibilities he knew from the Church. Here, not for the first time, he was a trail-blazer. The likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, the Reverend Al Green, and Marvin Gaye (who was born Marvin Gay, and added the extra partially in reverence to Cooke, his hero) would follow suit.

But Cooke would be among the first to disrupt musical segregation by color, too. He appealed to white listeners in a way that no Black artist had before, while retaining his massive appeal among Black audiences. Musical segregation would not be eliminated by 1956 (or by 2016, for that matter), but the practice of classifying music either for the “white” pop charts or the “Black” R&B is now knocked-out, and it was Cooke who landed that first, powerful punch. Furthermore, the racial diversity of their audiences helped spark some artists in the 1960’s to speak out against segregated performance venues: in this way, music and musicians became an essential part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Most of all, though, just listen to that voice. If you’re a fan of singing, and of the history of vocal-musical communication, as I am, listen to the way he spins the lines at his first vocal entrance. Imagine that this artist would create vocal sounds that were unheard of to all but Black sacred music listeners at the time.

Hearing that sound, know that suddenly the sound world of the Ink Spots, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Nat King Cole suddenly became the sound of the past: beautiful, extraordinary even, but no longer cutting-edge. Suddenly, the world of Motown, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder became possible, became inevitable. Soul was coming into being. History and culture had turned, all of a sudden– more was possible, the world of sound would get richer, and all of us would have to change.

Song of the Day: April 29

Juilliard castIn anticipation of our final NYFOS After Hours of the season next week, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” we’ve asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate this week’s Song of the Day. Come out to see them at 10pm on Monday, May 2nd at HENRY’s Restaurant! Today’s entry is from tenor Gerard Schneider.


Paul McCartney – Junk

The song I have chosen for my submission is Junk from Paul McCartney’s 1970 self-titled album, McCartney. Originally considered for inclusion on the both The White Album and Abbey Road, this short and simple song features a sparse arrangement of acoustic and bass guitar, xylophone, and drums.

Written during Paul’s time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, the song relates the loneliness and isolation of relationships, and the pain, memories, and emotions held by the material possessions of those couples – now ‘junk’.

Motor cars, handle bars
Bicycles for two
Broken hearted jubilee

Parachutes, army boots
Sleeping bags for two
Sentimental jamboree

Buy, buy says the sign in the shop window
Why, why says the in junk the yard

Candlesticks, building bricks
Something old and new
Memories for you and me

Buy, buy says the sign in the shop window
Why, why says the in junk in the yard

The melancholy lyrics instantly turn my mind to the now-famous six-word novel often attributed falsely to Ernest Hemingway:

For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Although I find myself struck with a great sense of sadness when listening to this song, I marvel at McCartney’s ability to imbue such human emotion into his depiction of otherwise mundane objects.

Paul McCartney’s great love for the song was such that he chose to include it not once, but twice on McCartney – once in the form discussed above and another on the B side as Singalong Junk. The arrangement of the latter differs greatly from Junk; removing the vocal entirely and replacing it with a piano melody, inserting a line for mellotron and featuring the drums more prominently.  In both cases, Paul said this about the song:

“[I] wonder about why we leave things that were a part of our lives and replace them with others, because at the same time we leave memories attached with those objects, in a real metaphysical way…”

As I age and continue to learn my craft, I recognize that there are facets to this song still left for me to discover. And the most excellent thing about a song you truly love is that it can never be thrown away.

Song of the Day: April 28

Juilliard castIn anticipation of our final NYFOS After Hours of the season next week, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” we’ve asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate this week’s Song of the Day. Come out to see them at 10pm on Monday, May 2nd at HENRY’s Restaurant! Today’s entry is from pianist Christopher Reynolds.


Gabriel Kahane – Bradbury (304 Broadway)

Gabriel Kahane is somewhat of an inspiration to me – here we have a genius from a more traditional musical family who has paved a way for himself in a manner that seems to defy any traditional route of either classical or popular music, yet has found massive success in both fields while bridging the gap between the two. He has even written for NYFOS if I am not mistaken. This song cycle/album entitled “The Ambassador” is one of my favorite works of the last century – each of the 10 songs are imagined perspectives from different buildings in Los Angeles, and contain a variety of poetic verse, epic-style narratives, or re-imaginings of traditional material, as is the case in this song. The Bradbury Building is most famously featured in one of my favorite films, Blade Runner. The climax of Blade Runner occurs when (SPOILER ALERT) Roy Batty, the “villain” of the film (as well as an android) delivers one of the most beautiful monologues in the history of western civilization to Harrison Ford’s character. Harrison Ford at this point is clinging to the edge of the building while Batty holds a dove. Neon light surrounds them, and as he concludes his speech “All those memories will be lost in time, like tears…in….rain,” he releases the dove. This song takes this monologue as well as the imagery and plot points of Blade Runner and constructs a static portrait, sensuous in quality, of Kahane’s experience of the film and the building. There is nothing better for a rainy day.

Song of the Day: April 27

Juilliard castIn anticipation of our final NYFOS After Hours of the season next week, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” we’ve asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate this week’s Song of the Day. Come out to see them at 10pm on Monday, May 2nd at HENRY’s Restaurant! Today’s entry is from mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano.


More so a performance of the day, rather than a song, “Joe” by the Alabama Shakes is a 3-minute earthquake of music making that I am absolutely honored to share with you all. This band has resonated with me for the past few months, quenching my alternative, bluesy rock thirst for the times when I want to momentarily step away from the classical and musical theatre worlds and seek inspiration elsewhere. Now, the music in and of itself is certainly special, but the thing about this performance that never fails to awaken my spirit is the dynamic lead vocalist, Brittany Howard.

The song begins calmly, with a soothing guitar line, a cool rhythmic tap on of the symbol and drum, an electronic piano harmoniously making itself known. Then you hear her voice. Androgynous in nature, almost in kinship with Nina Simone, her sound packs an incredible, velvety punch. You immediately understand that this woman has something important to say. Using traveling as a metaphor for hopping from bad relationship to bad relationship, Howard tells a classic unrequited love story in which the storyteller wants nothing more than for her love interest, Joe, to be hers and hers alone. She admits that she’s been all over the world and has experienced great success, but finds that without sharing it with Joe, she can’t be truly happy.

The lyrics are enough to pull at one’s heartstrings, but once you witness Howard’s soul bearing performance, you find that your jaw’s hit the floor and your emotions are pouring out onto the stage with her. It’s pretty darn easy to see why she was named Billboard’s 2015 Women in Music “Powerhouse” artist. The intensity she brings to the stage, while simultaneously maintaining finesse and class is my favorite thing about this woman. She can jive, scream, and twirl herself around the stage and then almost immediately lure you in with sweet and tender melodies. Press play and see what I mean! I hope this song gives you the inspiration it’s given me.

Song of the Day: April 25


Juilliard castIn anticipation of our final NYFOS After Hours of the season next week, “Harry, Hoagy, and Harold,” we’ve asked our performers, young talents from the Juilliard School, to curate this week’s Song of the Day. Come out to see them at 10pm on Monday, May 2nd at HENRY’s Restaurant! First up is mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms.


The Day The World Turned Purple

When an icon passes there is the unavoidable sharing of their creations and outward expressions of nostalgia from fans across borders. In the 21st Century we share in the profound grief that fans face beyond word of mouth and radio broadcast but even more profoundly through social media, sources that allow us to recall or experience for the first time the insurmountable joy fans received from an artist’s work. As I scrolled through Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and every other site this week I was faced with post after post of the gut wrenching truth that the world lost yet another an icon, one who’s influence went far beyond the boundaries of their craft and challenged preconceived notions about not only music, but style, race, and sexuality: this irreplaceable genius was Prince.

I had already written about a Shubert piece but after hearing Purple Rain pipe through my headphones for the tenth time as I lie in the middle of Central Park staring at the clouds I knew I had to change my course. If this is your first of fiftieth time hearing this song let it wash over you with open hearts and minds as the man who made this emblematic piece no longer exists with us but his art endures on.

A combination of rock, gospel and orchestral music, Purple Rain was a staple of Prince’s concert repertoire. A lone guitar starts the piece and is joined by drumming and an organ to set us in a gospel church mood. As the pared down musical summary of the same named film, this track follows the story of “The Kid” and his quest for reconciliation with three characters in his life.  The first verse is dedicated to his father, then his ex-girlfriend (Apollonia), and then his band mates.

For decades fans have pondered the true meaning of Purple Rain and why Prince would embark upon such a radical, evocative song style. Prince himself said “When there’s blood in the sky, red and blue equals purple. Purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” Band mate Lisa Coleman said the song symbolizes “a new beginning. Purple, the sky at dawn; rain, the cleansing factor.”

Whether it was supposed to signal the end or beginning of an era, Purple Rain undoubtedly was a dramatic change for pop music and a definitive moment in Prince’s career. Re-translate “Purple Rain” as “Purple Reign,” and Prince’s royal connotations with the color purple throughout his career come to the forefront and further the belief that he was, and remains, an uncontested member of musical royalty. Allow yourself to journey through the entire Purple Rain album, venture on to Sign o’ The Times and then Dirty Mind. Recapture the powerful hopes and emotions that his music and performances stirred up from within us in our youth and now today as adults. Remember our incomparable Prince.