Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / “Ports of Call”

March 18, 2014
We had our Caramoor show on Sunday, and today [Tuesday] was the first of our two at the National Opera Center. The opening was full of surprises—mainly that the audience was so responsive to the songs, and that so many of them went superbly. We didn’t hit the bull’s-eye on every single tune but they all landed, the highs were high indeed, and nothing serious went amiss. The Caramoor crowd has not been notable for animation in the past. The room itself has the kind of austere beauty that doesn’t encourage stuff like applause and laughter. On Sunday they were definitely giving us more than I anticipated, and they were even quick enough to catch the dry, campy humor of Noël Coward’s lyrics. I had a very good afternoon at the piano—started well, and kept the energy humming just right. This is a complicated show for me because Leann is playing a lot of it, so my bouts at the piano are very discontinuous. But on Sunday every time I settled back into the keyboard, I was in gear.

Tonight’s show went really well for the singers—even more five-star performances across the boards. Everyone in excellent voice and spirits. Leann was on fire too–wow. The audience likes the National Opera Center; I kept hearing people say, “Oh, it’s so great to be up close like that to the performers.” And the voices do sound good in the hall—no, there isn’t the rafter-ringing reverb of bigger spaces, but apparently words are clear and voices sound opulent. The program itself plays like gangbusters, and the combination of all the different genres of songs plus the connecting prose and poetry does have a built-in magic. That was lucky because I had the most peculiar night of it; I started well, really hooked up and dancing with the Yamaha. Cooking with gas. But two-thirds of the way through the show I felt I went a little dry. I got a little weirded out by….something I can’t define, and I was working hard to play my easiest songs in the show, stuff I can toss off in my sleep. It was like having an existential tummy ache. By the encore it was gone.

I am eager to tackle it all again tomorrow [Wednesday!], and I think the performance will be the best of all. We have some very distinguished folks coming to the hall and all of us plan to entertain them royally. I’ll be sad to put this program to bed, and I hope you’ll hustle down and catch it.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 5

Day 5:  March 14, 2014
As Sondheim wrote in Company, “Today is for Amy.” At Caramoor, that meant giving Amy Burton time to have leisurely one-on-one sessions with each cast member. After lunch we worked on the spoken continuity and then we “hit the low spots”—i.e., rehearsed all the numbers that needed special review. The day started at 10:30 and wound down at 7 PM—time well spent.

It is a little bit of an adjustment—and an act of trust—to let someone else come into the rehearsal process at the end of the week and make adjustments to the work you’ve begun. But Amy is family, and she made a tremendous contribution. She has an eagle eye for gesture and stage space, she respects and loves the voice, she hears poetry equally as sound and meaning, and she’s so cultured and experienced that her soul seemed to resonate with every song on this crazy program. As the day went on, Michael and Amy and I started to function as one entity, and by the time everyone limped out of the hall I felt we were simply a community of eight artists—five singers and three pianists—working the material like a team of jewelers.

Theo HoffmanTheo and Miles have been reveling in good health and good spirits, and the music has been like an artistic aphrodisiac for them. But Annie and Olivia have been fighting various ailments all week—the tail end of colds and flus that seem to have taken up squatter’s rights in their bodies. I too was sick last week and am puzzled to find that I’m still coughing as if I were overplaying the role of Mimí in some regional production of La bohème. Coughing doesn’t affect my piano playing all that much, but it has challenged both of the women in the program. Today we had to change one of Olivia’s numbers. Truth to tell, necessity was the mother of invention: I much prefer the song we’re going to do (by Granados) to the one originally planned (by Turina). It’s far more appropriate to the theme of the program, and it plays into Olivia’s strength. She studied Granados’s songs with the great Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza a few years ago, and brings a patrician authority to the material—or will, once she sings it for a couple of days!

Annie’s been husbanding her resources with wisdom and calm. When she sings, she gives everything she’s got (and it’s stunning); she also is one of the few singers I’ve known who can have a really useful rehearsal without singing at all. She’s been a great scene partner in all the group numbers, and her oversexed British dowager in Coward’s “A Bar on the Piccola Marina” has only gotten drunker, dirtier, and (somehow) more subtle as the week has progressed.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 4

March 13, 2014
A day of highs and lows. In the morning we had some visitors—a small cadre of Caramoor donors and board members, and also the General Director of Caramoor, Jeff Haydon. He’s the fellow who took over Michael’s old job, and I admit I have a soft spot for him. He’s a very decent guy with wonderful energy, and things always seem to shine a little brighter when he’s around. I like it when Jeff comes to rehearsal because none of us are afraid to do real work (i.e., screw up) in his presence, yet our hearts remain light and buoyant. Jeff always makes me feel talented and worthy and I appreciate that so much. He and the other visitors, including the appropriately named Vivian Song, were a sensational audience and the cast gave some of their best performances so far. Olivia suddenly morphed into a Brazilian sex-kitten in “Nenê,” Theo brilliantly channeled Noël Coward in an amazingly stylish rendition of “Uncle Harry,” Miles poured out vocal gold in his Grieg song, and Annie stopped time with “Calling You.” By the time we went into lunch Michael and I were feeling that all was right in our corner of the world.

The afternoon session took a turn for the worse. We did a run of the whole show and lots of it was really good, but…some of it was suddenly sliding out of place. If God is in the details, he was taking a siesta. I’d played really well in the morning; in the afternoon I felt like a hack. The concert seemed to need some sort of chiropractor to get it back in alignment.

Amy BurtonAs it turned out, God was not asleep. He sent us the art-chiropractor we needed: our guest teacher for the week, soprano Amy Burton. She hadn’t worked at Vocal Rising Stars since the first season five years ago, but I remember how sharp she was on every level: language, voice, interpretation, staging. She dispensed some much-needed vocal wisdom to the singers, and she instantly fixed two of the biggest problem spots in the group numbers. My favorite moment? A critique of the Hoagy Carmichael song, which had been absolutely stellar yesterday but which abruptly lost its way this afternoon. “Theo, ‘Hong Kong Blues’ is about opium. You look like you’re strung out on crystal meth…or coke. Anyway, wrong drug. We’ll work on it tomorrow.”

In truth these shows are elaborate undertakings for a seven-day rehearsal period. But with these heartbreaking singers, plus Wonder Women Amy Burton and Leann Osterkamp, we’re going to be fine.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 3

March 12, 2014
The third day is the sweet spot. The pressure of the performance isn’t really upon us yet, the group numbers are on their feet (or, in one case, on its butt, since the cast is seated for it), the guest teacher hasn’t arrived, and it’s just the family, workin’ away on songs.

Salient features of the day:
The Cast in Prayer(1) We had a morning visit from about twenty students from a nearby high school, all of them members of their school chorus. They were amazingly attentive, asked a lot of good questions, and gently kicked all of us into performance mode. Sure, they were watching us rehearse, and we let them see us change keys, talk about vibrato, place vowels, fix problems. But inevitably you don’t rehearse the same way when you have an audience—you have to deliver the song, and that was a good boost to our energy. They also gave us an idea for a dance break in the Hoagy Carmichael piece that had been eluding us–it’s something called the Bernie…? Anyway, it comes from a movie, I think, it rang a bell with Miles and Theo, and it covered sixteen bars we’d been struggling with. I have found with high school students that a tiny, tiny touch of bad language and a soupçon of irreverence go a long way to earning their trust. I was all too happy to oblige.

Theo Hoffman and Annie Rosen(2) Both Olivia and Annie asked for a day of vocal rest. They have been struggling with some fatigue, and Annie is still getting over the same cold I just had. They devoted all their energies to the ensemble numbers, in which they sang lightly but acted with amazing commitment. Annie has to play a dowager in “A Bar in the Piccola Marina,” and she is already channeling Maggie Smith and Patricia Routledge. Today we got her to speak so she’s always straddling her register break—upper crust perfection, slightly crocked. Everyone’s great in that piece—Miles and Olivia as her very strait-laced children, and Theo double-cast as her boring (and soon dead) husband, and also her libidinous Italian boy-toy.

Miles Mykkanen and Olivia Betzen(3) With the girls pretty much on “mute,” Miles and Theo had breakthrough days. I gave Miles a pretty wide range of songs, from the gentle to the forceful, and he’s rising to the challenge quite beautifully. I always say that song is the great arena for expanding your vocal art, because you can safely go into uncharted waters in the span of a two-minute song. In his Grieg piece Miles is stepping into what I call his Helden-lyric voice, his big-boy sound, and it’s perfect for his juicy Scandinavian Stimme. And Theo is breaking through barriers, sinking into his music, his voice, and his art in the most moving way. The warmth and passion of his music is so satisfying.

Stenhammar under the piano(4) The cast decided they wanted to sing their a capella Stenhammar piece lying under the piano, just as we’d done two years ago rehearsing the Blitzstein quartet “In Twos.” They’d read about it and seen the picture on this blog, and they decided they needed to revive the tradition. This time we made sure Gabe Palacio, the photographer, was around to capture it. And I got a shot of Gabe on the floor with them as he took his pictures.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 2

March 11, 2014
Miles MykkanenThe first day is always the honeymoon; and on the second day I can see what the week’s work is going to be about. These singers all have such fertile imaginations that they are sometimes bombarded with thoughts, ideas, images, impulses. They’re gifted and young, and they are still building the wiring to handle their own artistic electricity. Their capabilities are enormous. Some singers would be daunted by the eight languages in “Ports of Call”; others would need to be shown the subtleties of melody and style. At Caramoor, though, everyone has a tremendous instinct for music, and no one has raised a fuss about the languages, not even Danish or Russian or Brazilian Portuguese. But in these early rehearsals, the cast tends to overreact to their material with bursts of passion that can knock them slightly off-kilter.

Annie Rosen and Michael BarrettSo today was all about simplicity, legato, bel canto. “Just sing the notes, everyone,” I finally told them. “It’ll ALL be there, just sing. Especially the little notes—make ‘em long and fat.” It’s the kind of advice you can only give to people who are natural stylists. The song is in there already, it just needs to be allowed to emerge.

I am glad there is such a range of music on the program, because everyone finds songs where they instinctively relax into their voices—often the American popular stuff. “AHA! There’s your voice—sing your art songs like THAT!”

Olivia BetzenHighlights? Miles stopped time with his “Song of the Indian Merchant” from “Sadko.” Annie has amazing command of Bill Bolcom’s “To My Old Addresses”—so does Leann, who hops through the piano  writing as if it were child’s play, which it definitely is not. Theo is devastating in Guastavino’s “Pampamapa” and naughtily dapper in Noël Coward’s “Uncle Harry.” And Olivia is making a beautiful thing of the Brazilian tango “Nenê,” her first foray into Portuguese. She got a language lesson from Portugal-native Merceds Santos-Miller during which I quietly freaked out—oh lord, the Portuguese accent and the Brazilian one are even more different than I thought. But God is good. Merceds approved of the way Olivia learned the poem under my guidance…

Theo HoffmanAs if to reward us, the sun came out after lunch. I was outside for about three minutes and I felt something I had not experienced since October: warmth. I’ll never forget that feeling—nor the music that came afterwards, equally warm.

–Steven Blier

The Ensemble

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 1

March 10, 2014
Today was the first day of the 2014 Vocal Rising Stars program at Caramoor—the sixth season NYFOS and Caramoor have collaborated on this project. Every year has its own distinctive atmosphere, like the unique timbre of an instrument or the tantalizing aroma of a something in the oven. Our cast is a bit younger than usual—just a few years, really, but for people in their twenties the age difference is significant. One of our singers, Annie Rosen, has sung in opera houses overseas, but the other three—soprano Olivia Betzen, tenor Miles Mykkanen, and baritone Theo Hoffman—are just entering the professional world. Theo is still an undergraduate (he’s the youngest we’ve ever had in the program), and Olivia is fresh off the boat–she moved to New York about six weeks ago after finishing the Masters program at Ann Arbor. All of them are superb musicians and total stage animals. I am reveling in their freshness and their sense of freedom. Sometimes the first day of rehearsal can be stressful as each singer endeavors to impress his colleagues. Today we saw no grandstanding; Michael and I were struck with how everyone was easing into the songs by exploring them, sinking into the words and music, letting the beginning be a true beginning—the bud, not yet the flower, of the song.

Caramoor asked me (gently but repeatedly) to add a young pianist into the mix of artists, and I (gently but repeatedly) demurred. I felt it was like having another mouth to feed, and I admit that I was feeling selfish and proprietary about the songs. I’d created this program last summer at Wolf Trap and played it on my own; now I was already flipping out about splitting the repertoire with Michael—how could I add another person at the keyboard? But when Michael not only leaned on me to acquiesce but suggested Leann Osterkamp to fill the role, I had no trouble saying yes. Leann had helped me get the Juilliard show ready this January, and she is a dream colleague: prepared, attentive, flexible, and generous. I let her wear my hat all day as a gesture of inclusion.

One thing is certain: all of us are in need of something restorative, an Art Retreat, and I cannot remember a group of singers who were more grateful for the peace and quiet of Caramoor. It’s like being in the eye of a storm for seven days. You know there is a lot of turbulence around you, but you are safe in a cocoon, a temple of music, a private clubhouse with a well-stocked DVD player. It’s a conservatory with only four students—and three pianists at their beck and call.

It was beautiful hearing everyone sing today—what a program, if I do say so myself. If there was one single highlight, it was playing Kurt Weill’s “J’attends un navire” for Annie. I felt something at the piano that I hadn’t experienced in a few years, something I’d been missing: the feeling of riding on a rocket. The music is so powerful and it seemed to lead me back to the kind of uninhibited, spontaneous music-making I remember from my twenties, when I was the age of this cast. After we were done, Annie looked at me wide-eyed. “That’s how it’s going to go,” I said—“you up to it?” “Oh, YES!” she answered.