Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Days 5 & 6

DAYS 5 and 6, March 13 and 14
So much drama. Friday we did a presentation for a bunch of high school choral singers. The kids didn’t seem too interested in Michael or me, but they were really into the singing, absolutely fascinated to hear full-throated, sophisticated vocalism close up. And we fielded a lot of great questions from them—as always, about four people had three questions each, but we accomplished the feat of having 40 high schoolers in the palm of our hands. This wasn’t “The Voice.” This was the real deal.

In the afternoon we welcomed Karen Holvik as our second guest-teacher of the week. Karen and I met at Aspen when we were in our 20s, and have had a long, long musical love-affair. She is now the head of the voice department at New England Conservatory, and has some of the sharpest eyes and ears and brain cells of anyone I know.


Friday’s runthrough was a little underwhelming. I’d started out a little hot under the collar about being relegated to the role of hired hand in the morning, but then I got quietly exercised about some real things. It seemed as if so much of the work Michael and I (and Giuseppe) had been doing all week was going out the window. The notes we gave were pretty much the same notes we’d given the day before, and the day before that. “It’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’” I mused. “You wake up and you start all over again from scratch.” In these moments I have a decision to make: do I get better results from being warmly supportive, or do I reveal my irritation, and if so, how? What will be effective? I decided to let Michael and Karen do most of the talking. My mouth has a way of running away with me. Anyway the singers can smell it when I am not happy, and it’s not a pleasant odor.

That night I had to be in town for a memorial tribute to two great opera singers who had recently died, Carlo Bergonzi and Licia Albanese. My friend Paul Gruber had masterminded and produced the event, and he did a magnificent job. I must have been tired and vulnerable, because I did a lot of crying that night. When Licia Albanese, age 81, sang “Never look back!” in the video of “One More Kiss” from Sondheim’s “Follies” with the young Erie Mills, I flashed on Chris Reynolds and me. The old diva, the young hotshot. I sobbed. In the second half, there were major waterworks every time they showed a Bergonzi video. Thank God I was sitting alone—Jim was a row in front of me, blissfully unaware that his husband was having a total emotional meltdown two feet away. After the show I thought, “Just get out of the theater and go home. If you can do that you’ll be OK.” Unfortunately I ran into my old friend, artist manager Ken Benson who cheerfully said, “Wasn’t that amazing?” and I let loose with the biggest display of weeping yet. “It’s like the funeral…of my art form!” I managed to blubber. “It’s all GONE!” I wailed. On the way to the 11 bus I managed to burst into tears only two more times. Finally Jim gently said, “Um, Stevie, can you try to stop crying? Because if you don’t I’ll start crying too.”

It didn’t help that Vittorio Grigolo, young tenor sensation, had been on hand to give a live vocal tribute to Bergonzi. He gave the most bizarre, tempo-less performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which sounded like a Justin Bieber impersonation. He appeared to be singing in Esperanto, and addressed most of his burbling, bumbling song upstage to a still photo Bergonzi. Grigolo is a nice-looking man, slender (he wore really tight pants and maroon socks), and clearly into being a Personality. My takeaway: Bergonzi died and look what we’re left with, a weird narcissist with a papery voice.

Bergonzi and Albanese were doing what I had been asking my cast to do all week, and after Friday’s tentative run of the program I wondered if the whole tradition had died despite my best efforts. But this story has a happy ending. On Saturday Michael gave a strong pep-talk to the cast. He didn’t mince words, but he did tell them what he wanted them to do: man up, remember what we’d been working on, live up to their talent, take a risk. And by God they did. “Go too far if you need to, we can pull you back.” That happened only in a couple of songs. The dress rehearsal was thrilling. The singers—and pianist Chris Reynolds—knew that we were counting on them to sing with eloquence, dignity, passion, connection, and they let us know that (despite the evidence of superstar Grigolo) the future of vocal music was safe in their hands. They sang for keeps, and I arrived home a much happier man.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 4

DAY 4, March 12, 2015
The atmosphere was, as I expected, a little different today. No guest coaches, just Michael and me—and our first work-through in concert order. Michael, Chris, and I decided who would be playing which songs on Sunday (with some possibilities of change for the Tuesday concert in New York). And it was time to blend the gentle, patient Zen-master approach with a bit of the “come-on-people-let’s-get-our-act-together” Realpolitik of getting a concert ready.

Except for a little bit of an explosion on my part about the Verdi song, I think Michael and I behaved like true midwives, coaxing, exhorting, cajoling, encouraging, but not letting up. The truth is that the cast is doing beautiful work, but they sometimes just needed a bit more energy, confidence, concentration, daring. Everyone was being a little careful, and you can’t sing Verdi carefully. It’s funny what Italian music brings out of me: a Steve I don’t know very well, a firecracker, an assertive guy who screams things like “NO!” and “MORE! MORE!” and “ARTICULATE FOR GOD’S SAKE!” and a few things I can’t print in a blog. Thank God I was coaching Shea, who has the composure of a Benedictine monk. And he gave me what I asked for—the sardonic, energized bon vivant of the “Brindisi.”

Music is about faith: you have to believe your instrument works. Sure, a good technique is a huge part of being a confident performer, but you also need a dose of moxie to exploit that technique and use it to its fullest capacity. My exhortation today was, “Don’t think about what Giuseppe asked for yesterday and let it immobilize you. Don’t be cautious and try to figure out what Michael and I want. No, put one foot in the prompter’s box and deliver the song! In Technicolor!”

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 3

DAY 3, March 11, 2015
Wednesday is usually when we start to see where the glories and the rough spots of the program are. It is also the last day when we permit ourselves to feel carefree and pleasantly exploratory about it all. “What key did you decide on for that song?” I say in a calculatedly casual tone. “Oh, I’ll let you know tomorrow…” “Can you fix up the mushy spots in the ensemble?” I toss off later on. “Oh, sure, we’ll practice when we get back to the dorm.” “Are you going to do that phrase in one breath?” “Um, I hope so! We’ll see…” “Printed cadenza or something of your own?” “Ah! I’m…still deciding…!”

All these answers hang in the air and I take them in stride. Because tomorrow we head into the let’s-get-serious mode when we have to start preparing for the Sunday performance. The words “off book” haven’t been mentioned; with a cast this experienced and responsible neither Michael nor I feel that we have to play schoolmarm about getting the songs memorized. In fact, I like to keep as much of a feeling of playfulness as possible throughout the whole rehearsal process. I liken it to letting Jell-O harden in the refrigerator. It simply happens in the course of time if you mix the ingredients together properly. You just hope that you got it into the fridge in time to be ready when the guests arrive.

Guiseppe Mentuccia and Steven BlierToday was our second day with Giuseppe Mentuccia, to whom I gave the nickname Il Principe, “the prince.” His thought processes about music are different from mine and Michael’s, and therefore of great value. He spoke about the consonants as “the trap set of Italian vocal music,” and showed us how they define the contour of the line. “This section is like a banda, we have them in every town, you know, town band.” He was speaking about the opening of the Donizetti duet. “BAAAAM, ba-BAM ba-BAM ba BAM-ba,” he sang. Suddenly the little unaccompanied vocal lines made sense—banda volgare unexpectedly turned into dolce bel canto. About the Pizzetti song, “Is bardic, is ancient, is primordial. But is not tragic.” About Bellini: “In classical period, the phrase goes to the downbeat. In romantic era, the phrase goes to the note before the downbeat.” As Giuseppe spoke, I felt as if I were hearing my own thoughts in a very loose Italian translation. We both wanted the same adjustments; but our cultural differences led us to express them in contrasting ways, as if we were walking into the same room through two different doors.

Christopher Reynolds and Alec CarlsonI finally got to work with our pianist Chris today; up till now he’d spent the lion’s share of the day in the other studio collaborating with Michael. Chris is a spookily smart and eerily gifted young guy (young, as in 19 years old). His playing is so easy and accurate that it can be a bit unnerving. He’ll come up with things like, “The only Busoni I ever played was his piano concerto. Really, really hard, and I hated it.” Pianists divide into two basic camps: concerto guys, and the rest of us working stiffs. I’ve never had the aptitude for using the piano as an athletic event, and I don’t even like listening to concertos all that much. To me, they are the porn of classical music.

The question remained: how do I teach someone who makes music—and talks about music—with a kind of assurance and virtuosity I never had? Certainly not by knocking his confidence down. Instead, I tried to show him gently how I think about making character and drama at the piano. No big overarching theories—just specific moments. After all, I have performed several thousand songs by now. “I take an extra second here to let the thought sink in,” “I know there’s no diminuendo written but if you play these two notes just a little softer it sounds as if the curtain is going up on the song,” “Maybe if you lift the second beat it sounds a bit more inebriated…no, not that much, the character isn’t plastered, just a little buzzed.” I myself appreciate detail more than generalities when people work with me, and I also do not like feeling over-controlled by a colleague. I could see that by loosening up a bit of Chris’s tight, incisive attack his music-making got more pliant, more subtle, more vocal.

Yesterday had begun and ended in a rosy glow, starting with Bix Beiderbecke and ending with a late-evening drink with my colleague, the English pianist Julius Drake. Julius schlepped all the way to my apartment just to spend a few minutes with me, and I was glad that he finally got to meet my partner Jim. (I guess I should get used to using the “h” word—“husband.” Give me time.) Yesterday, alas, was bookended by sourness. I greeted the day awakening from a nightmare, screaming “I CAN’T BREATHE! I CAN’T BREATHE!” (This is a rare occurrence for me.) And the end of the evening brought a double-whammy: I ran over my down coat and ripped it pretty badly, covering my hallway in feathers. It now looks like the home of an angry drag queen or an urban branch of Frank Perdue out by the front door. And I found out that my wheelchair, which has been in the repair shop for two months, got returned to the wrong address. When I think of the standards we musicians have in our profession versus the appalling slovenliness of health care for people with disabilities, I become pretty enraged. Depending on a wheelchair isn’t the most amusing thing I can think of, but god help you when your wheels break down. Because you are in the hands of a very screwed-up system where the bar is set so low you can’t even see it.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 2

DAY 2, March 10, 2015
The day started with the usual drive from Manhattan up to Caramoor with Michael. Uncharacteristically he’d kept radio on: WKCR, the Columbia University station, was doing its annual birthday tribute to jazz cornet legend Bix Beiderbecke and he wanted to share the music with me. The KCR morning host was one of those wonderful jazz nerds who announced every single player on every single song. What celestial, sweet recordings Bix left us before he died at the age of 28. The DJ read what must be a famous quote by Eddie Condon about this jazz legend: “When Beiderbecke played his silver cornet, the sound came out like a girl saying ‘yes.’”

I felt so soothed and inspired by hearing Bix, as well as the old-fashioned crooners who still rolled their r’s when they sang with the big bands. I decided that I too wanted to sound like a girl saying “yes” when I made music. It seemed like the only sensible goal.

Today we welcomed our first guest coach, Giuseppe Mentuccia. He came very highly recommended by Corradina Caporello, the Italian teacher at Juilliard; he is also close friends with people I know and respect. Chris Reynolds, our young pianist, thought he would be a great idea for us. So I met Giuseppe, liked him, and took him on. Our program includes many languages—English, French, German, and Hebrew—but I felt sure that we would benefit the most from having some expert ears for the nine Italian songs. Adding one more keyboard player to the mix would mean that for two days we’d have as many singers as pianists, an embarrassment of instrumentalists (all with their own opinions). I worried that the delicate pH might go awry.

Guiseppe Mentuccia, Steven Blier, Michael Barrett and Eileen Schwab
But I had a sense that Giuseppe would be a force for the good, and I was right. He hails from Rome, and came to Juilliard about five years ago. He’s working on a doctorate in piano, but he’s also begun to branch out into other musical passions—coaching song and opera, delving into conducting, writing a thesis about the mystical conductor Sergiu Celibidache. He’s a pure musician, one of those guys whose very presence leads you in the right direction, and his ears are as sharp as the enchanter’s sword. He wore a spiffy burgundy sports coat (which I assumed came from a fancy Roman boutique, but was actually purchased at H&M) and I decided that life should definitely be lived in a series of dark-hued blazers.

The musical work continued strong today. Shea rehearsed the song by Mark Adamo, written to a lyric by Mark Campbell; the two Marks had given me the song for my wedding., where it was sung by Matt Boehler. It’s called “This Much Is New,” and Sunday will be the official world premiere of this gem. When I practiced the song at home I invariably broke down crying on page 3—not just tearing up, but the real boo-hoo stuff, sobbing uncontrollably. Jim would find me weeping at the piano and quietly say, “Oh honey, are you working on Mark’s song again?” I’d been nervous about rehearsing “This Much Is New,” but I got through it without embarrassment—though Shea is one of the very few human beings in front of whom I could comfortably cry. He’ll do this special piece justice—he has a beautiful heart.

Julia Dawson and Chelsea MorrisOn other fronts, Julia found the sabra soul of her Castelnuovo-Tedesco song (in Hebrew). Things cleared up for her definitively when I told her I thought the narrator of the song was a shiksa—a non-Jewish woman, I explained—in love with a Jewish guy. “Ohhh. A shiksa. That…is something I understand,” she said, tossing her blonde mane. I worried that the virtuoso Rossini piece I assigned her might be a bit much for a young singer, but she apparently tore up the rehearsal room with the bravura ending. “O mai gohd, Stiv, it wahz fahntahstic,” confided Giuseppe. Chelsea dug very deep into her soul today and stunned everyone in the room, including herself, with “Ombra di nube.” “I want to work on the Bellini,” she told me right after, “but first I need to go somewhere and cry for fifteen minutes.” And Alec’s voice is just like his smile, radiating light into the world. When he sings “I Only Have Eyes for You,” I wish Bix Beiderbecke could have heard him, and echoed that beautiful tenor voice with a sweet answer on the silver cornet.

–Steven Blier

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor / Day 1

DAY 1, March 9, 2015
I greet the Caramoor residency with a tangle of emotions drawn from my rich reservoir of neurotic complexity. I am very excited because the unique spell of the Music Room brings forth memories of powerful artistic connections in my life. I have had my musical heart broken in the most delicious ways there, hearing some of the most celestial singing of my career. Is it any wonder that I am also nervous every season my anticipation may lead to some unforeseen disappointment?

We had our first day today working on Bel Canto/Can Belto, a program of songs by Italians and Italian-Americans. It’s a demanding concert, requiring vocal fireworks, world-class musicianship, passion, irony, style, and charm. I was pretty sure I had the cast we’d need for such an audacious enterprise: soprano Chelsea Morris, mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson, tenor Alec Carlson, and baritone Shea Owens, with “apprentice” (aka “ace”) pianist Chris Reynolds. We had a pretty great first day. Their voices are, if anything, even more beautiful than the last time I heard them. And the spirit in the room was so calm and reassuring—a very mature quartet emotionally, and a group of people of such intense generosity and good hearts as to make geniality seem like a state of grace.

I am fascinated to see what forms of humor float to the surface with each group of singers. Some years we have a couple of artists (ok, I mean guys) who like to quote television shows or movies at length; others years we’ve had a share of good-natured ribbing that could occasionally tilt into frat-house humor. Today we laughed together like adults. Somehow we fell into a series of jokes using the B-word, begun (I blush to admit) by me even though I usually consider that epithet totally off-limits. We had some prize puns from Shea, to whom I’ve given the nickname “Grandpa.” Michael only told one joke today, timing out at 3 minutes (the rings-of-hell joke, one of his specialties). Alec was singing his heart out and got a nosebleed. Julia did a dead-on impression of a blessed-out yoga instructor in emotional denial, ending with the phrase “I am present in this shit.” Chris, our youngest-ever Rising Star (age 19) demonstrated a kind of calm competence that I can only call other-worldly. Chelsea made tea at 4, and proceeded to kill me softly with her song.

Yes, a good day. A very good day.

–Steven Blier