Song of the Day: December 31

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)from Steven Blier:

George Gershwin is my official “Favorite Composer.” After all, you have to have an answer ready when people ask that question, and Gershwin’s music is certainly very close to me—like my own skin, my own blood. Gershwin songs are usually very cheerful, but they always have just a hint of melancholy, like chocolate that is sprinkled with a bit of sea salt. Maybe Gershwin is the glitzy, glamorous, egocentric virtuoso I always wished I could be, spewing melody with Vesuvian brilliance. And certainly Gershwin is the soul of New York, my home town and my home base.

So to ring in the new year, a classic Gershwin song and dance: “I Can’t Be Bothered Now,” from the 1992 show Crazy for You. Harry Groener is a masterful hoofer, and he’s surrounded by a bevy of beauties.

I Can’t Be Bothered Now, from Crazy for You

And since I’m doing doubles this week, here’s a classic Gershwin number, “Slap That Bass” from Shall We Dance, sung and danced by Fred Astaire.

Song of the Day: December 30

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)From Steven Blier:

For me, “Follies” is the greatest of all modern musicals. But it’s almost impossible to get it just right in production. James Goldman’s book is difficult—brilliant but somewhat flawed—so it needs a subtle, clever director. The cast is large, and everyone, from supporting players to leads, has to have depth and a fierce kind of pizzazz—there are just too many moving parts (as it were). The scenic elements are crucial, and so is the lighting which creates the double time-frame of the action. But the score is brilliant; the lyrics show Sondheim at his absolute finest; the mix of real-time scenes and out-of-time scenes gives the work an almost Proustian quality, especially in the second half. Even in a half-decent performance the story gathers a cumulative weight that is devastating. Perhaps I react so strongly to “Follies” because I first saw it with my very first boyfriend when I was the age of the ghosts (19 years old). Now I am the age of the married couples (or even a bit older), and most recently saw it with my husband. When I was younger I perceived but didn’t feel the theme of the passage of time, the way even our good choices can eventually become prisons. Now I blubber like a baby throughout the show.

The recent Broadway revival had its problems, but it did boast one breathtaking performance: Danny Burstein as Buddy, a role that is almost always under-cast. Danny found depths in this rather shallow character—reservoirs of anger and hurt under the façade of a schlemazl. Here’s his second-act showstopper, “Buddy’s Blues,” in which he turns his failed marriage and his unsatisfying adulterous affair into a brilliant vaudeville routine. (Danny’s on Broadway now as Tevye in “Fiddler.” Can’t wait.)

BUDDY’S BLUES (Danny Burstein):

For another view of Buddy, here’s Mandy Patinkin in a famous performance from the late 1980s at Lincoln Center:

Song of the Day: December 29

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)from Steven Blier:

I have loved the song “If You Hadn’t But You Did” ever since I heard the original cast recording of Two on the Aisle (where it was performed by powerhouse Dolores Gray, who sounds as if she could sing Amneris). Cy Coleman is at his peak, and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green do a dazzling turn with a series of rhymes for the word “if”—“South Pacif’,” “bare midriff,” “hieroglyph,” and about 18 more. In this performance, Kristin Chenoweth has a scene partner: m’man Séan Martin Hingston, who spends most of the song playing a hilariously acrobatic corpse. As Chenoweth’s punching bag, he takes the most extraordinary pains (to paraphrase Sondheim). Bear with the slightly dark video, and you’ll see some deliciously witty physical comedy.

And for more fun, the Dolores Gray original, sung at a healthy clip:

Song of the Day: December 28

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)from NYFOS’s own Steven Blier:

We have tickets to see American Dance Machine for the 21st Century next Saturday night. They are a group that revives classic dance sequences from musicals, and apparently they do superb work. In the last few years I have discovered a primal relationship to Broadway dancing, and when those hoofers go into action I usually burst into tears. So I’ve decided to ring in the new year with a week of exuberant song-and-dance videos. For a guy in a wheelchair, they are as cathartic as any Mahler symphony.

First up, the third segment of the Tony-winning musical Contact, which I saw twice when it played at Lincoln Center Theater in 1999. I enjoyed parts one and two very much, but Act III made my heart race. I was seeing my own story onstage: a guy who mostly lives in his head is forced to compete with a group of swaggering men who are bigger, more confident, and better-looking than he. Most of all, they can dance with breathtaking virtuosity, and he is terrified to move. But the hero is desperately attracted to one of the women at the bar, and the only way she’ll give him the time of day is if he dances with her. Otherwise, she’ll grab her yellow purse and leave him hanging. It’s all about overcoming the fears that keep you from moving.

The performances are magnificent, the music is divine (Benny Goodman, The Beach Boys, Robert Palmer, Dion, and The Squirrel Nut Zippers), Susan Stroman’s choreography dazzles. And in the ensemble, there’s my favorite Broadway dancer, Séan Martin Hingston (in a white sleeveless undershirt): can’t take my eyes off him. When he dances, I feel as if I am dancing too.

Song of the Day: December 18

LLE headshotThis week our SoTD curator is Laura Lee Everett, the Director of Artistic Services at OPERA America, who’s had a long and varied career in opera—stage managing, mentoring young artists, facilitating the creation of new works, and more—at companies all across the U.S., from Alaska to Virginia.  (She’s also helped NYFOS present our NYFOS Next series at the National Opera Center for the past few years. You can catch it there in February 2016!)  Thank you and welcome, Laura Lee!

It has sure been a pleasure and a challenge to curate this week’s entries for the NYFOS Song of the Day. Thank you, Claire Molloy, Charles McKay and Steven Blier for all the wonderful work you do and for the generous invitation to participate. I can’t wait to have you all here at the National Opera Center in February for NYFOS Next!

My last song is the amalgam of all the wildly varied influences in my life and the base, core reason that I do what I do for a living. I love music. Full stop. It is as essential to me as water, blood and air. I am lucky enough to spend most of my time around some really excellent artists telling beautiful and amazing stories through music.

RSNothing brought this home to me more clearly than the first time I worked on Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

There are not nearly enough comedic operas in the classical canon, in my humble opinion, and I thoroughly enjoy this show not only because it is comedic, but also because it is a bit “inside baseball” about the trials and tribulations of working with artists and all their temperaments. In a nutshell, an aspiring opera composer is about to have his work premiered at a fancy dinner party his patron is throwing and learns that his glorious creation must share the stage with a troupe of comedians. Adding insult to injury, the major domo has just informed him that dinner is running late and in order for both performances the patron has paid for to be delivered, they must do so simultaneously in order to be done in time for the fireworks. Act 2 is the combined performances, followed by fireworks.

At the end of the first act, just at the point when the whole thing could come apart at the seams, the moody, emotional, young composer has a supremely honest conversation with the flirtatious lead comedienne about the loneliness of performing and the love we all seek in those fleeting, magical connections with likeminded souls. Flush with love, he embraces his music teacher (who he had nearly fired just before this scene) and sings the aria “Sein wir wieder gut”. I believe the words and music are self-explanatory.

Be my friend once more!

Be my friend once more!
With eyes new opened, I see what was hidden.
The depths of existence – who is there can plumb them
My dear friend,
there are many things in the world
which cannot be expressed in speech.

The poets put down very good words, quite good words
And yet, and yet, and yet –!
Courage is in me, my friend!
The world is beautiful,
and not frightening to the daring man.

And what then, is music?

Music is the holiest art,
which unites in sacred bonds all who can dare,
Like Cherubim guarding a radiant, shining throne!
And that is why she is the most sacred of the arts

Oh, sacred music!

The first time I heard this aria performed live, I knew I had made the right choice with my career path and no matter what, I would do something that involved music for the rest of my life. For me, it will always be, the holiest of the arts.

The role of the composer is a pants part, a woman (usually a mezzo soprano) playing the role of a young man. There are many great performances of this piece, but there will never be another artist the likes of Tatiana Troyanes. From 1988 at the Metropolitan Opera, the Composer’s Aria.

Song of the Day: December 17

LLE headshotThis week our SoTD curator is Laura Lee Everett, the Director of Artistic Services at OPERA America, who’s had a long and varied career in opera—stage managing, mentoring young artists, facilitating the creation of new works, and more—at companies all across the U.S., from Alaska to Virginia.  (She’s also helped NYFOS present our NYFOS Next series at the National Opera Center for the past few years. You can catch it there in February 2016!)  Thank you and welcome, Laura Lee!

I really like songs from other places that have a distinct sound and feel to them that tells you where they grew. One of the greatest things about so many of my peers and colleagues is that they are not from here, meaning the United States. It allows me to learn about music from other cultures, with other sounds and languages. In turn, I learn about the people from those places, cultures and religions through their ears, their music.

A friend was playing a song at a party that caught my ear and I said “WHAT is that? I love it!”

PM.pngThis “small orchestra” from Portland, Oregon of 12-14 musicians writes their own songs in at least 10 languages. Thomas Lauderdale, a classical pianist from Indiana and China Forbes, a singer with a gift for languages, co-wrote most of the songs that the band performs. Their sound is wonderfully eclectic and diverse, designed to bring people together around the piano. They have many a story telling song painted with the sounds of other lands and cultures. And they are fantastic live, often performing with symphony orchestras around the world.

The song of theirs that I find both beautiful and haunting is written in Croatian. I have no idea how to translate it. But the cello (played brilliantly by Pansy Chang from Vienna, Virginia), the driving rhythm section and the color of the piano lines make me listen to it again and again.

U plavu zoru                                               At Blue Dawn
Tiha noc                                                        Silent night
Sjene su u bijegu                                        shadows are in hiding
Ja cujem zvuk                                              I hear a sound
Sta blize zove me                                       that’s calling me closer

U plavu zoru                                                 At blue dawn
Sa svjetlom, tu                                             with a light, there
Na mojo vrata                                              at my door
Ti stizes                                                          you’re coming
Naci ces                                                          You will find
Praznu postelju moju                                my empty bed
Dok vlak nosi                                               while the train is taking
Me’ daleko                                                    me far away

Song of the Day: December 16

LLE headshotThis week our SoTD curator is Laura Lee Everett, the Director of Artistic Services at OPERA America, who’s had a long and varied career in opera—stage managing, mentoring young artists, facilitating the creation of new works, and more—at companies all across the U.S., from Alaska to Virginia.  (She’s also helped NYFOS present our NYFOS Next series at the National Opera Center for the past few years. You can catch it there in February 2016!)  Thank you and welcome, Laura Lee!

Opera vexes me.

I love working on new operas. Collaborating on premieres by Carlisle Floyd, Dominic Argento, Lee Hoiby, Jake Heggie and John Musto is extremely exciting. It is also exhausting.

I love working on “bread and butter” repertoire: Aida, Butterfly, Carmen, Tosca. Blood, sex and violence, tunes you can hum – great pieces, to be sure. But I grow weary of them when I repeatedly work on the same pieces. I did 6 productions of La Traviata in 9 months and it liked to have killed me. But there is one thing I never tire of, that constantly challenges me musically and emotionally and makes it clear why I love this art form.

MThere is nothing with stronger roots to ground me to music than Mozart.

To some, I know that sounds a bit clichéd, but after 25 years of working on everything from Montiverdi to Howard Shore, Mozart cleanses my palette and feeds my soul. When hearing singers in training, Mozart is the place you cannot hide. His arias will show everything you can or cannot yet do with your instrument and your imagination.

Mozart knows how to tell a good story. He picked several of the most controversial of his time to set to music. His skill was in telling stories that exposed all facets of human relationships and the emotions are all written in the music. I have several favorite Mozart operas, but the top of my list is Die ZauberflöteThe Magic Flute. You may poke whatever fun you like about that (opera purists – looking at you) but it is a show that I both performed in and worked on many times and I always take a great emotional journey through the piece. One aria in particular can be the single most devastating and beautiful piece of music – Pamina’s only aria “Ach, ich fühl’s”. Rare for a Mozart ingénue to only have one aria, but it is so powerful and unlike so much else of his writing. It stands as the one moment in the piece where she completely gives in to despair, yet makes a clear decision to end her life, thus driving responses from everyone around her in the story. There are titles on the attached video, but here is the translation:

Ah, I feel it, it has disappeared
Forever gone love’s happiness.
Nevermore will come the hour of bliss
Back to my heart!
See, Tamino, these tears,
Flowing, beloved, for you alone.
If you don’t feel the longing of love
Then there will be peace in death!

Pretty heady stuff for a comic singspiel written for the public theater house. This song always makes me think of Benedict’s mocking line about love songs from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing:

‘Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?’

In times of woe and sadness, this piece does just that for me.

Here is a somewhat fuzzy video, but with titles in English, of Kathleen Battle performing in the 1991 production from the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine conducting. (Francisco Araiza as Tamino and Manfred Hemm as Papageno).

(The aria starts around 2:00 mins into the clip)