August 25, 2014
There is a certain excitement to playing in big cities and legendary halls. But there is an equal thrill, and sometimes a deeper pleasure, making music in intimate spaces. In big places, you sense you are there to impress people. This weekend in Bellport and Orient, I felt we were there to feed people—and these crowds were hungry for music.
Because our concert opened with an a cappella piece, I could sneak a look at the audience as the music began. While the cast burst into “Come live with me and be my love,” I saw astonishment and delight flash into everyone’s face. They were literally startled by the beauty they were hearing. They’d come to be indulgent about fledgling singers, and found themselves in the presence of some world-class musicians.
I was born in a big city—New York—and am at my most comfortable living there. But as an artist I understand the fine brushstrokes of chamber music best. I love detail, I love the feeling of communion you get when you can see the faces of the audience. I love diminuendos, and nuance, the placement of a consonant timed perfectly with an F-sharp in the piano, the precision of a ritardando, the way a rosy sound can turn deep red, or a vibrato-less outcry can ripen into a juicy lament.
This is why the past weekend was such a pleasure. Chelsea, Lauren, William, and Theo performed like masters in the solo material, and formed an ensemble with a blend as refined as the King’s Singers. Both halls were packed. Over and over I got a compliment I used to resent but now find heart-warming: “That was fun!” Because if a general audience experiences a program that includes Stenhammar, Oltra, Granados, Grieg, and Frank Bridge as fun, we have truly done a good job. Classical music is often thought of as castor oil: good for you, if rather unpleasant in the consumption. We turned over that particular myth once and for all.
I shall refrain from detailing the accomplishments of each cast member, for fear of sounding like a proud parent afflicted with a sad case of logorrhea. Suffice it to say that they delivered performances of astounding beauty, and each found the kind of quiet authority that is my deepest goal in NYFOS’s Emerging Artist programs. Chelsea located a new richness of timbre that added velvet to the amazing sheen of her sound; Lauren sculpted her Granados songs like Bernini having an especially good day; and William sang Frank Bridge with an unforessen supply of passion, color, and imagination. At the end Theo rocked the house with the “Craigslistlieder,” which he delivered with a combination of deadpan sincerity and hipster irony, revealing astonishing theatrical judgment.
I am a maniac about my own playing, and I had two mostly-decent encounters with the 88s. The Bellport piano is a really distinguished baby grand, the Orient piano an endearingly quaint one. I found myself wishing I’d had one more week off between the end of my month-long series of residencies and this project; I would have wanted a few more days to bash out the rough spots on my own. I was reasonably happy with my own work; I was ecstatic about the four singers’.
In Bellport we’d been treated to a sensational meal at the home of voice wizard Deb Birnbaum, who had produced the concert. That left me with one last hurdle to jump after the Orient performance on Sunday. The cast came to our place for a victory dinner, along with our Juilliard colleague, tenor James Knight (a superbly loose cannon), a close family friend of Chelsea’s, Theo Hoffman’s parents and their friend, the painter Andrew Keating. Theo’s father and mother are famous New York restaurateurs (owners of Savoy and Back Forty) and I was very nervous about feeding them. I was also terrified there would not be enough to eat, as the guest list kept creeping up. So I ordered in dinner from our premiere prepared foods place (Salamander, in Greenport) and prayed to Hermes, the god of hospitality. He heard my prayer, and supplied us with quite a decent meal, the gift of a generous local supporter. I was treated to the sight of Peter Hoffman masterminding the takeout, opening the wine, recommending the rosé, dressing the tomatoes, and (best of all) approving of the meal. Susan Rosenfeld, Theo’s delight of a mother, actually did the dishes. There was a ton of food; three-quarters of it got eaten. It was my final sigh of relief.