Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@NorthFork / Day 2

DAY 2: August 18, 2015

The first day of rehearsal is always an eye-opener. One person shows up with everything in a tabbed notebook, another has a wad of loose, double-sided, folded Xeroxes. Someone nails one song with emotional depth and convincing Argentinean Spanish, then proceeds to deliver another in what sounds like Esperanto. One person gives a thrilling, ready-to-go rendition of a Cuban piece, and then falls apart in what I thought was a much more straightforward Brazilian one. Three out of the four know what the encore is; most of them have all the pages of their songs but there are odd lapses. I’d been pretty meticulous, nigh unto OCD, about sending material to the cast, and had to suppress a few “grrs” during the day. It was a long rehearsal spanning six hours, with some great moments and some four-car pile-ups. I was at the piano for all but 30 minutes (my ritual tea break). When I got home I was reduced to monosyllables. Chopping a tomato took my entire concentration.

For the cast, this repertoire is uncharted waters, while I’ve played some of these songs for twenty years. I was reminded yesterday of my experiences accompanying Jessye Norman and Barbara Cook late in their careers. They were used to one way of singing their music, and in both cases I had to deal with tempos and phrasing and musical spacing that seemed somewhat…counterintuitive. I knew the songs well, well enough to have my own deep groove with them. Partnering them felt like being in an unruly rental car dodging potholes in thick traffic. Jessye was sweet with me in rehearsal but I knew she thought I was not the right man for her fanciful way with Poulenc and Strauss; Barbara was not so sweet, and in my entire career I have rarely been so glad to see a double-bar.

I care deeply about the artists I’ve brought out to Orient; I want the weather, the produce, the bike routes, the beaches, and the rehearsal process to be perfect 24/7. But they are novices with South American and Cuban song, and I have a lot of miles with these pieces. With great flair I pile into the intro I use for “Por una cabeza” and come to the cadence. Silence. I look up at gentle, intelligent Dimitri who asks, “So…are you going to give me four bars for an intro?” “Honey. I just played the intro.” “Oh. OH! I get it.” There is a little nuance I do in “Pueblito, mi pueblo”; yesterday I had to dissect it beat by beat for Alex McKissick who couldn’t catch my wave. One of the issues is that they’re not quite at the point where they can climb on board Rocketship Steve. Their minds are on entrances, notes, and the difference between Cuban and Argentinean Spanish, which then get confused with Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation. At one point I heard Spanish that conflated high German with Brazilian–amazing the amount of ways one can pronounce (and mispronounce) the letter “j,” I mused.
The cast could use a rehearsal pianist, and at Caramoor, Juilliard, and Wolf Trap I have backup. Here, no. And the longer I play the more haphazard my work gets; clean at 3 PM, sloppy by 7. My fear is that by Friday they’ll be perfect and I shall be a total wreck. Note to self: only you can prevent a piano fire. Hermano, cúbrete el culo.

And then there are the magic moments. The last song of the day was the Gardel tango “Por una cabeza.” Once Dimitri realized where to come in, he piled into the music with all the wounded machismo the song needs. He’d been up since 6 in the morning, and by then his Spanish had descended somewhere into the middle of the Indian Ocean, but the essence of the song was blazing through him. I looked up and everyone was dancing, Anna and Alex gliding through the room with metaphorical roses in their teeth, Amanda doing a little solo. “We’ll be fine,” I thought. “We just need to get all of our rehearsals like this.”

–Steven Blier

Come see the product of all this hard work! NYFOS@North Fork: Latin Lovers, August 22 and 23rd >

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