Song of the Day: January 29

unnamedThis week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!

Hazel Dickens (1936-2011) was a true treasure, and her soulful performance of this song is one of my absolute favorites. Written as a memorial to her brother Thurman, a coal miner who died of the eponymous disease, she sings of Black Lung as a manifestation of Death personified. Here, Black Lung/Death is the only one there for the dying miner after all others–the boss, the doctors–have turned him away.  “Well it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor.”  He’s left to face Death alone, saying: “Black lung, black lung, your hand’s icy cold. / As you reach for my life, you torture my soul. / Cold as that waterhole down in the dark cave / where I spent my life’s blood, digging my grave.”  A 2001Washington Post article said of Dickens, she “writes songs about two kinds of pain: the kind you can fix, like economic injustice, and the kind you can’t, like heartbreak and death.”  This devastating song has some of each.

Hazel Dickens – Black Lung (1969)

 

Song of the Day: January 28

unnamedThis week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!

Somewhat like the Gillian Welch song from yesterday, Tom Waits’ Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) has a slightly trance-like quality to it. Within a repetitive form, off-kilter and brilliant lyrics stumble and lurch forward, only to be caught each time and put upright by the chorus, a Waitsian interpretation of Australia’s unofficial national anthem “Waltzing Matilda.”  “Now I lost my Saint Christopher now that I’ve kissed her” is among my all-time favorite lyrics. Slightly cryptic, like the Welch, it perfectly sums up–for me–the dizzy feeling of falling head over heals in love. My personal affection for this song–admittedly sentimental–likely has something to do with the fact that my partner is Australian.

Tom Waits (1949) – Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen) (1976)

Song of the Day: January 27

unnamedThis week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!

Entrancing and meditative, “I Dream A Highway” ends Gillian Welch’s 2001 album Time (The Revelator). I first heard it in 2004 or so, and it has been one of the most important pieces in my life ever since, in any genre. The song itself feels like a ritual. It repeats the same few chords for much of its 15-minute duration, with a repetitive form, but for an occasional and very brief deviation. But within this are infinite minor details: subtle orchestration changes, slightly evolving harmonies–both in voices and guitar–a tempo that gradually slows throughout, while it continually gets softer. It would be a perfect lullaby if it didn’t hold my attention so powerfully.

The lyrics are gorgeous, and play with images across time, in which the profound is drawn from the ordinary. I find lines like “Now you be Emmylou and I’ll be Gram,” “I’m an in-disguisable shade of twilight,” and “Step into the light poor Lazarus…Let me see the mark Death made,” to be beautifully mysterious and evocative, requiring certain keys to unlock their meaning. The fade-out at the end, usually a kind of songwriter cop-out, here feels like a suggestion that the work continues on into eternity, getting ever slower and ever softer.

Gillian Welch (b.1967) – I Dream A Highway (2001)

Song of the Day: January 26

unnamedThis week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!

I first encountered this song as part of Heiner Goebbels’ theater piece Eislermaterial, and later tracked down this version of Hanns Eisler singing and playing himself. I immediately fell in love with how perfect it feels: simple and straightforward–it is a patriotic song for children, after all–but highly sophisticated and elegant in its construction. The subtle harmonic shifts, slight changes in accompaniment, secondary melody that enters at just the right time make it, for me, a miniature masterpiece.

Hanns Eisler (1898 -1962) and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) – Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe (1950)

SONG OF THE DAY: JANUARY 25

unnamedThis week our SoTD curator is composer David T. Little who will host and curate the opening evening of NYFOS Next 2016 on February 4th. Little’s operas Soldier Songs and Dog Days have received wide critical acclaim, the latter having received performances this season at Fort Worth Opera and Los Angeles Opera and hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “one of the most exciting new operas of recent years.” Little’s “sharp, elegantly bristling” music (New York Magazine) is potent and dramatic, drawing as much upon his experience as a punk/metal drummer as his classical pedigree. Thank you and welcome, David!

Picking five favorite songs is an impossible task. You have no choice but to omit giants, and in this case I’ve had to do just that. Were this a list of 20 or 30 favorite songs, there would be songs by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Dar Williams, Peter Seeger, Ani DiFranco, The Cure, Willie Nelson, Utah Philips, Nina Simone, Gram Parson, David Bowie, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Paul Simon, Marc Blitzstein, Bessie Smith, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and, and, and…so many others…not to mention, you know, Schubert.  But I’ve only got five slots, so we’ll stick to my absolute favorites, in no particular order, starting with an undisputed masterwork, which I’ll let speak for itself: movement IV from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, “Urlicht”

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) – Urlicht from Symphony No. 2 (1892/1894)

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Juilliard

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Juilliard Residency:  Day  5, January 8

Yesterday we had a break in our routine. It was our first day without Adam Cates, the choreographer, and that always makes us feel as if daddy has gone away. (Were we bad?) And Mary Birnbaum, our director, also took most of the day off for meetings time-sensitive chores; she just popped in for half an hour to look at some of the group numbers. I had to man up and run the rehearsal, which felt a bit like flexing a muscle I hadn’t used in quite a while. (Would anyone listen to me?)

It turned out to be a good day to work on music and words, rhythm and style, subtext and interpretation. Those things go on the back burner when people are tap-dancing and gyrating their hips. Instead, they get relegated to the realm of subconscious work. That’s not inappropriate, but it’s important to revisit these things explicitly.

And then, of course, the big event of the day: our 3-hour session with Broadway icon Mary Testa, who had also come in as a guest coach last year. Mary is clear-sighted and direct, finely tuned to acting, very musical, and open to anything except BS, against which she has a very powerful filter.  Like me, she is not averse to beautiful, powerful singing, But (also like me) she also needs to feel emotional connection, emotional surprises, spontaneity, aliveness. Mary is not connected to the world of opera; she didn’t know who Peter Gelb was, had no sense of his current régime at the Met or its controversies. (That was deeply refreshing, especially in a Juilliard rehearsal hall.) Mary is in the moment, and she wanted us to be as well.

I had wondered which of the singers would be most open and relaxed around Mary, and I also wondered how she would respond to these young performers from a different walk of musical theater. The answer was: a couple of them weren’t quite as open and daring as they had been at their best rehearsals, and needed a few runs and a bit of Vitamin M to get their mojo going. But when it did hook in, the room lit up. And a couple of others (whom I didn’t think would be quite to Mary’s taste) got her highest, most immediate accolades. My takeaway? I was thrilled to see that this cast of “opera singers” was able to conquer Miss Testa, who is not what I’d call a pushover. Her one piece of advice to them as classical singers was something I’d been saying for a couple of months: when they sing together, they have to clip the words a bit more. “There’s just so much voice comin’ at us, and you have to spit a little harder.” It’s true: when you have a big fundamental tone, the consonants have to stand very tall to match the vowels.

Mary was looking for what she called oppositions—the underside of the joy in one song, the sadness and anger under the triumph in another. I was proud to see that in many cases my cast was able to present her with that kind of complexity right from the first reading. We got a couple of, “Wow, I have nothing to add to what you just did. I loved it.” And some lovely doses of Mary Testa-ese: “ ‘Old Black Magic’—it’s not about love. It’s about lust, and it has to be an unexpected kind of desire. Something you don’t associate with yourself. Like…’I’m a housewife from Oregon, and I suddenly want to be tied up and blindfolded while I have sex with my neighbor.’” Pause. “I don’t know where that came from. But you get my point?” Amanda did. We all did. Or in “Skylark,” when Dimitri was talking about the seeing the bird: “It’s not about the bird. The bird is just a vehicle for you to see another living being, and realize that you are also another living being, and then you are able to admit for the first time: ‘I am lonely.’ And that is a big thing to say.” And always: “Don’t plan what you’re going to do. You’ll cut off all the good stuff. Don’t try to be perfect. It isn’t interesting.”

Mary was invigorating and confidence-inspiring, and the beauty part was that she wasn’t trying to pump up the cast. She responded without a lot of filters, so that her advice was real and her enthusiasm genuine. She is so dear to my heart. I am glad she’ll be back with NYFOS next autumn. How nice for me. How nice for everybody—to paraphrase Bette Davis.

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Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Juilliard

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Juilliard Residency:
Day 4, January 7

A few years ago I had the brilliant inspiration to take another pianist on board to help me with the Juilliard rehearsals. We work six hours a day, seven days in a row, and in previous years I found myself morphing into a rehearsal pianist, exhausted, taking short cuts, husbanding resources, fighting for survival. By the performances, I felt as if I had nothing left—every inspiration seemed to have dried up during the process of getting the songs ready. All of this changed when Leann Osterkamp became my right-hand (and left-hand) person for the past two shows—an ace pianist and a deeply generous, caring person. When she graduated, I began to despair…until I reached out to Christopher Reynolds, a current Juilliard pianist who had done such stellar work at our Caramoor program, a year after Leann had been there.

Chris said yes, and I knew it would be smooth sailing. He’s scary-smart, quick to learn, and so responsible that I feel he’s teaching me how to be a professional. Like Leann, he showed up knowing all the songs cold, in their transposed keys. Neither he nor Leann had done huge amounts of popular music before—they’re virtuoso classical pianists “paper-trained,” as I call it. But both of them feel the beauty of the Great American Songbook, and watch me like a hawk. This is a style you learn by listening and observing and absorbing, and I’ve been charmed to see the way Chris is starting to imitate my voicings at the piano. Yesterday he even was sitting like me (I have, perforce, an unconventional way of positioning myself in the piano chair). And when 4 PM arrives, he’s there with my daily cup of tea. I’ve chosen to let myself be pampered.

Two days ago I came back from rehearsing in another room, and found that the two pianos in our rehearsal room had gotten switched. Chris approached me with a rueful expression. “I…did a really forceful glissando, I guess, and…broke a key.” “You broke a string?” No! I broke a KEY.” And he opened his palm to reveal a piece of black wood, which used to be a C# at the top of the keyboard. We pianists carry our strength in odd places, so don’t approach us in a dark alley. You’ll be sorry—remember that C#.

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Harry, Hoagy, and Harold will be performed on January 13, 7:30pm at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at The Juilliard School (tickets here) or on January 17, 3pm at Flushing Town Hall (tickets here).