Tonight is our NYFOS@Caramoor concert at Merkin Hall, “At Home,” so we asked our 2016 Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars to contribute to the Song of the Day blog this week. Today’s selection comes from mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis.
I hesitate as I begin to write this because it is personal and exposes me as less than classically virtuous, but the more I brood over Poulenc’s “C’est ainsi que tu es” the less I care. Apologies to my father and anyone else who holds my innocence in high regard.
The song is merely two pages long, less than fifty words – but couched within is a complex yet complete world of a similarly brief affair. This is a love song. But it’s not to a love that lasted or even had a chance of doing so. Absent are the golds and reds of the Italian serenade, the floral perfume of the British odes, or the hallowed dark-green of the German repertoire. Instead we have a multi-faceted reality that could only be colored by French sophistication.
Poulenc’s music evokes a balance of nostalgia and gratitude, a smile tinged with a sigh– pathos is the wrong word as the pungent chromaticism evokes the detail of sensuality rather than the tragedy of its end. We loved with the knowledge of an expiration date. We remember it with wistful, but mischievous smiles shared with the walls – if they could talk, they’d likely laugh once and wink. As Whitney Houston would later belt out “The ride with you was worth the fall”.
Now how exactly am I supposed to paint this in a song that lasts for all of two minutes? It’s so easy to oversing this, but with too much rubato the song becomes morose and indulgent. So we’ll keep the rhythm constant and the phrasing coy – some French music professors demand that there be no elasticity of tempo in Poulenc ever – but when sung this way the song feels wooden and unsatisfying, robbing the performer (and, subsequently, the listener) of the work’s inherent lustiness. The musical atmosphere is composed of the fug of a hotel room shared by mediocre wine, cheap tobacco, and forbidden lovers.
This week at Caramoor has been the perfect place to explore this song. Steven, Michael, and Will have such commands of all styles of repertoire and can coach the technical aspects better than anyone. But what I find most thrilling about this week is the depth of collaboration we find on every song. The atmosphere created by everyone is unquestionably supportive. We don’t baby each other, but ideas are thrown around, experimented with, cut, and tried again. We find what works not just for the song, but for the couple who will play it together – my version of the Poulenc will be different based on the pianist paired with me.
Later in the evenings, the other singers share their impressions and we talk about the life experiences that are brought to mind. Over lunch or evening beers we laugh and share about memories and how they relate to the music we’ve been learning. It’s this kind of work that is the most artistically thrilling in my opinion. Each day ends with us exhausted but happy, looking forward to relaxing and then sleeping, only because sleep will lead us to another day of musical and intellectual nourishment.
I imagine that this week will be one for the memoires.