Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / “In the Memory Palace”

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.

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@North Fork / Day 4

Day 5: August 21, 2014
Officially Thursday is the second-last rehearsal, but since it is the day before dress rehearsal it is really the last time I can tinker with the songs. What does tinkering mean? A short sampling:

1. With William, working on the approach to a high note at the end of one of his Frank Bridge songs. For a tenor, modifying the vowels as you go to the top is nothing short of a science. To the listener, it sounds like five ordinary words in English, “and a rose her mouth”; for us, it’s “and euh rooz—heuh—m-eh + ow—–(silent th).” Tenors can debate this stuff like Talmudic scholars, adding in arcana about intercostal support and uvular lift. All in a day’s work for me. I have to admit I love it the same way I loved my chemistry set when I was a kid. And I love the sounds William got yesterday even more than that.

2. Chelsea (below) has such immaculate technical control of her voice, a sweet, intense, timbre that fascinated me the moment I first heard it. She can do anything, but she has to work a bit to find what I think of as a tragic, haunted timbre. So we went hunting for shades of blue yesterday, and I think we found them. Lauren was in the room when we did the saddest of Chelsea’s songs, “Zur Rosenzeit”; she put her hand over her heart when Chelsea floated the reprise of the melody. I think of her as a sort of Helden-Elly Ameling, the iconic Lieder singer of the 1970s and 80s–“Elly on Steroids.”

3. It’s been pretty thrilling to see how far Lauren’s “Tonadillas” have come this week; before this, she’d never sung in Spanish at all. Suddenly she is finding the flair and soul of her Granados women, and playing with all kinds of colors and sounds. 98% of them are fabulous; the trick is keeping her sense of adventure vibrantly alive while weeding out the 2% of her experiments that go slightly awry. It’s like laser surgery for singing: do not disturb what is healthy and blooming, and just zap the parts that need zapping. Fortunately she’s not fragile—just wants to try those phrases again and make them right.

4. Theo is his own little eco-system: a unique swirl of arty wind and rain and sunlight. He’s perfect for Gabe Kahane’s songs—a gallery of crazy, brash, horny, defensive, belligerent, sensitive, smart, dumb guys Theo inhabits with virtuosic ease. He’s doing fine: I am the problem in this particular equation. Gabe wrote the Craigslistlieder for himself to sing and play, and when he performs them he uses a microphone. We are acoustic, of course. No mikes. The piano parts are notey, rambunctious, and extravagant. Translation: LOUD. (Also difficult.) I need to put some ice on them today to get the swelling down, and we might lower the piano lid for this group.

It’s been interesting to listen to the ensemble pieces, which range from Broadway (Candide Act I finale) to blues (“You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, in my arrangement) to English madrigal (“Come Live With Me and Be My Love”). The vocal blend and stylistic command have been pretty astonishing, and the singers’ patience with each other (at least in front of me) has been exemplary. Again, getting darker colors has been a little bit of an issue. The hall is bright and resonant, and young singers are taught to look for pink and yellow, not blue and burnt sienna, in their palette. So far we’ve made it to teal and avocado, and I expect the other crayons over the weekend.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / Day 4

Day 4:  August 20
Days that have drama are easy to describe. Days like yesterday are more difficult. No one cried, no one blew up, no one had a meltdown. No one stopped in to hear rehearsal and supply a cute anecdote. But in a quiet way, mountains were moving. This was the day when everyone began to stop thinking about their songs, and made the first steps towards letting them have their own inner life. It’s one of my oft-repeated maxims: first you work on a piece, then you let the piece work on you. I’d privately scheduled that turnaround for today’s session, but it began to kick in yesterday.

For Chelsea, it had to with something non-vocal: I asked her to concentrate on what she was doing when she wasn’t singing. “Don’t look at the audience for approval. Stay with your story, stay with your privacy.” The first time she tried it, I admit she looked a little immobilized. But thereafter…magic. Every song had its own special aura. This woman has a unique sound: sweet, bright, clear, free, but also imposing, like a lyric soprano on steroids. Intonation from God, vowels clean enough to eat off of. I swear she’ll sing Elsa and Desdemona by the time she’s 40. She’s perfect for these Grieg Opus 48 pieces, which were originally written for a Wagnerian soprano but really need an innocent, girlish timbre.

The same thing happened to everyone. Theo began to inhabit the gallery of Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder characters effortlessly—from effete intellectual to bluff bear, clueless teen to highstrung neurotic. It helped that the cast started to hang around and listen to each other’s rehearsals, probably in an effort to keep me on schedule (which sort of worked). Theo instinctively understood he could do more with understatement than with jabbing at the comedy. Lauren turned off her brilliant Canadian brain to find the duende, the paella-scented Spanish soul, of the women in Granados’s Tonadillas. And William, a Rossini virtuoso who also has a beautiful gift for British music, found he could own, not just rent, the Frank Bridge songs I gave him.

It was a day when barriers started to melt. We celebrated by having drinks with Max Rudin and Amy Schatz, two of my dearest friends and the first of our family group to buy a house out here. On the way up Youngs Road, the cast recreated the cover of Abbey Road. Max served figs on a salt block.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / Day 3

Day 3: August 19, 2014
Tuesday is the day to go in for the kill (gently). Yesterday I quietly noted what I thought each singer’s artistic goals ought to be for the week. But that only gives us till Thursday to do real work, investigating, trying new stuff, pushing away at old habits, discussing, analyzing, repeating, searching. By Friday we need to let the songs have their own say–get out of the way and give them the steering wheel. It’s a quick process but I’ve been amazed what can happen in a single, intense week of rehearsal.

We leave the doors open so people can amble in and listen. Of course, most people do the thing I most dislike: they hover right behind me in my blind spot so I can’t see them. I know they’re there because the singers are sort of playing to them, but I can only sense their presence and hear their breathing. I get it; they’re afraid they might be disturbing our work. Actually, having people lurking in the shadows is the only thing that really distracts me. So we invite them and to take a seat in the hall, and they always oblige.

A friend of ours, Bill McNaught, stopped in during his work day to listen. After the lurking ritual, he pulled up a chair and relaxed right in the middle of the hall. Bill arrived when Theo Hoffman and I were doing the title cycle of the program, Craigslistlieder. To us they’re well-known songs, almost part of the modern canon. But Bill had never heard them and didn’t know what he was in for. “You looked sexy, even though you were having a seizure…” sang Theo. Bill looked alarmed. “It was in the hair care section of the Vancouver Walgreens,” crooned Theo. Bill’s eyebrows went up. Way up. Theo growled, “I was the guy in the blue shirt holding your legs while that old man put his wallet in your mouth…”

We get to the end. Stunned silence. “Did you…like that, Bill?” I ventured. “What…what WAS that?” Theo and I explained Gabe Kahane’s cycle as simply as we could. I admit we were a touch freaked out; Craigslistlieder is brilliantly written and drily hilarious, but its sensibility is quite urban and distinctly Generation Y. But Bill was clearly intrigued. He stayed for the next three songs—“Assless Chaps,” “Half a Box of Condoms,” and “Two years ago.” When he got up to go back to work he was wreathed in smiles. “So…?” “Oh, I LOVED them! They’re amazing. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Relief.

We can still use more audience members in Bellport on Saturday, it seems, but we’re selling very well here in Orient. When people pass the hall and hear the singing, they go home and call for tickets. New York arts institutions: take note.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / Day 2

Day 2: August 18, 2014
Today was the first heavy-duty day of rehearsal. It started at 3 PM, spanned tea-time (organic English Breakfast from the Country Store but no actual break), and continued all the way to 8:15 PM. I was in my piano chair the entire time. The session went longer than I’d planned and I was banking on my partner Jim’s good will (he’s a saint in many ways, but he does need to eat dinner). I canceled a cocktail hour meeting with a friend: music trumps white wine. Alas.

Jane Smith is a dear friend of mine here in Orient, and she is co-producing this concert in tandem with NYFOS. She had told me she wanted to stop by, hear some of the rehearsal, and meet the cast. When she arrived we were just about to work on the very tricky quartet by Manuel Oltra, “Eco,” which opens Act II. But we all had the same idea at the same time—to sing “Come Live With Me and Be My Love” for her instead. It’s so rousing and cheerful, and fills the hall—and the street outside—with joy. The cast plunged in and the endorphins flowed as freely as the bay outside our windows.

When we got done, Jane was clearly moved, just as I had been the day before when they first did the piece. “That was amazing. I’m kind of broken up…” I started to say something to ease the moment, but Jane stopped me. “No, let me explain. That was…very meaningful. You see, today is the birthday of my late partner Cynthia, whom I adored. She died ten years ago.” A pause. “And before she died, we built a gazebo in our backyard. And on the gazebo she inscribed the words ‘Come live with me and be my love.’” Another pause. “She would have loved this concert. She adored young people, she loved music.” She looked at me with her blue eyes shining. “She loved blue eyes.”

The rest of the day was filled with plenty of hard work. But gentle, kind, smart Jane Smith reminded us of the irreplaceable gifts we held in that little concert hall: the sweet company of our colleagues, the magic of music, the uniquely evocative power of poetry. Is it too much to add: the enduring power of love?

I’ve not mentioned the singers’ names, and they are a superb quartet of artists. Our soprano is Chelsea Morris; mezzo-soprano Lauren Eberwein, whom I’d never met till Saturday night, holds up the middle of the ensemble in tandem with tenor William Goforth; Theo Hoffman is our baritone. I’ll have stories about all of them in the coming days, never fear.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / Day 1!

Day 1: August 17, 2014
By 3 PM, the four singers have arrived in my beautiful little Long Island town. Some are already friends, some are new to one another. Three hours later, I am witness to a small miracle: they are singing together for the first time—only they sound like they’ve been an ensemble for years. Tossing the counterpoint of William Bennett’s “Come Live With Me and Be My Love” from voice to voice, shading the dynamics as if John Eliot Gardiner were leading them, the quartet erupted with a spontaneous kind of buoyancy that I hadn’t dared to hope for. No one told them what to do; they knew.

It’s getting to the end of summer, and a part of me thinks I should go on vacation 24/7. But today I realized that this is the vacation I really want: to wed the joy of music with the delights of Orient (the easternmost village on the North Fork). Salt air and sweet voices, the miracle of bringing songs to life at the most precious, poignant time of the year: this is what my soul most craves right now.

–Steven Blier