Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Caramoor Residency: March 14

I’m happy to report that the show went beautifully yesterday. I quarantined myself for about 70 minutes beforehand (a few intruders tiptoed around me) and had a serious talk with my hands. They had a few things to say to me too, but after practicing gently (but insistently) they got the message and were on pretty decent behavior for the concert. During the performance I could feel that the audience knew they were in on something special: their newly-jiggered Music Room which situated the performers so much closer to them; new chairs; improved acoustics. It’s funny–our proximity to the listeners makes it easy to connect to them, but also creates a fascinating sense of privacy too. As we delve  into ourselves to bring the songs to life, we’re aware that our audience is about five feet away, while we are also deeply immersed in an imaginative world no one can see. It’s a paradox, and one of the things I like most about performing in the round.

At Merkin–Tuesday, 8 PM–we downsize our country house to Manhattan-apartment size. At our rehearsal today Alison Moritz and the cast managed to move into the new space gracefully. In three hours, it was done. At Caramoor, we had to gyrate a bit to include everyone in the side sections. At Merkin, we can be still more often. The whole audience is in front of us. Will and I are now on two pianos for most of the show, and that transition went so smoothly I was a little freaked out by how easy it was. Interestingly, the relationships between the characters in our little concert-cabaret seemed even clearer to me on the conventional concert stage than in the thrust set-up at Caramoor. Either way, you don’t want to miss Liv, Justin, Galeano, and Abi (and Will, my brilliant piano-guy). Those guys can SING. (And act.)
caramoor group

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Caramoor Residency: Day 6, March 12

We’re ready. Well anyway, the cast is.

Dress rehearsal went quite beautifully. We have the luxury of actual lighting (a rarity in my concerts, something I don’t get at Juilliard or in San Francisco), and the show flows quite well. We’re not quite sure how long it runs—there was a bit of controversy but it is somewhere around 70 minutes, which I of course hope will turn into 75—or 80!—minutes with applause. It seemed a perfect length.

It was interesting to see the way the cast has been growing in their music over these last few days. I made an instinctive decision to be as hands-off as possible today, leaving the lion’s share of the note-giving to Michael and Alison. I made a few surgical strikes, no more. “At Home” has the quality I prize most; an aliveness in the performance—that NYFOS spontaneity, the sense of ownership we always want from the people with whom we work. I can see there will be more of it every day.

I can’t say I had the most graceful afternoon at the piano, and I literally woke up playing one of the passages that slipped away from me yesterday. Today I’ll finally have the time to massage those few errant spots back into submission. I just need to quarantine myself for about an hour when I can have a little negotiation with my hands and the 88s.

Come hear us Sunday (today) at Caramoor—4 PM—or Tuesday at Merkin, 8 PM. “At Home” is coming in for a landing, and all of us promise you a very good time.

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Caramoor Residency: Day 5, March 11

Today was finish-the-staging day; work-with-the-props day; make-the-choice-about-who-is-playing-which-song day; work-with-the-lighting guy day; and (most of all) do-our-first-run-through day. In other words, the penultimate day of a week-long rehearsal period. It is usually a white-knuckle experience, fraught with “we won’t get done in time.” But today, somehow not. Everything got finished and reviewed in a non-hysterical atmosphere, and we were able to go about our business with the quiet industry of an ant farm. This had a lot to do with Alison Moritz’s infectious confidence, world-class verbal clarity, and unflagging energy; and Michael’s constant presence in the hall. He’s not playing in the show, though he’s done some of the rehearsals. But he sits out front and gives amazingly clear and usable notes to all of us. I trust him as I trust few other colleagues.

I knew going into the project that the dramatic element would take a lot of our time and attention. All NYFOS recitals have more staging than any traditional stand-and-sing concert, but this one needed even more: an increased focus on space because of the subject matter (the home) and the theater (a thrust stage in a room that had never been used in that way before). My hope was that the theatrical work would not overwhelm the music and vocal side of things. And for the most part Alison, Michael, and I were essentially working on the same issues with the singers, who are (after all) engaged as high-level, cream-of-the-crop students on the verge of their professional lives. Every acting issue ran parallel to a musical one—it all comes from the same artistic barrel, and everything seemed to fold in together beautifully.

But the realities of putting a show together in four rehearsals (after two music-only days) meant that the details of the staging indeed started to take precedence. I thanked God for Alison’s musical sensitivities, and Michael’s super-refined eyes and ears; meanwhile I was busy behind the piano trying to make the songs happen, in tandem with my duo-partner Will Kelley.

Therefore I had a passing regret that I didn’t have as much one-on-one time with the singers as I usually do. We have worked as a group or in pairs pretty much all the time. I feel close to everyone, but the truth is you have to be alone with a singer before they really let their guard down and show you where the real roadblocks are. Once anyone else is in the room they are mostly building guardrails around their weaknesses, putting up a brave front of self-sufficiency. This is an important part of being a professional, but it’s not the easiest entry into a teaching relationship.

I was reminded of this when I was leaving Caramoor today. I heard Galeano Salas practicing one of our songs in the Education Center, and decided to look in on him. It was the first time I’d been alone in a room with him all week, and we had an amazing discussion during which he confided some of his concerns about the way his material was going. I’ve been really thrilled with his singing, but I had been sensing that there was still one corner he needed to turn. In our impromptu meeting, I started to understand how to help him to the next level of his art. It’s always surprising to get a sense of the inner voices that torment singers—a litany of past failures, roles they didn’t get, people whom they suspect don’t like them, all of which filter into their sense of what they think I want from them, and what they assume I won’t approve of. In only 20 minutes with Galeano I got about three years’ worth of psychological and developmental insight. I only hope that what I was able to offer him in our brief meeting gave him the clarity to sing with his greatest freedom and artistry. He’s a tremendous performer and a thrilling tenor—he deserves to fly with freedom.

Now, of course, I want to take the same 20 minutes with everyone—Will, Abi, Liv, and Justin. Will I be able to? My heart-to-heart conversation with Galeano happened on my way to the men’s room. So perhaps I should take more frequent bathroom breaks.

Pictured: Abi Levis and Will Kelley, clutching all the teddy bears on offer for the Hahn song. My contribution was the blue bear in the middle, which was the first gift Paul Appleby ever gave me. It originally came with a jar of jelly beans around its neck, and it has a Jewish star on its sewn-on hat. Alas, it didn’t get chosen for the show.

And: Galeano Salas, costumed for the encore. ’Nuff said.

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Caramoor Residency: Day 4, March 10

Today was a very satisfying day, Caramoor Rising Stars at its best. The tentativeness of the beginning of the week has melted away, and the place was really buzzing with energy. Everyone brings high quality eyes, ears, and minds to the project, and I was struck all day by the way everyone pitched in—an amazingly high level of of cooperation and generosity. Technically it’s a tricky endeavor: at Caramoor we’ll have audience on three sides of the playing area, and we need to make sure our listeners can see the singers’ faces and understand their words. There are one or two places near the piano where the performers are equally visible to the entire hall. But inevitably most of the floor space favors some sections of the audience over others. This means that the singers have to stay in motion, broadly or subtly, angling their bodies, staying fluid but not fidgety, singing over a shoulder. The result is fantastically bracing and alive, but everyone has had to get used to singing on our faux-thrust stage.

While Alison Moritz, Michael, and I are in charge of the concert, there was a moment when I realized that ideas and solutions were coming from all sides of the room, and in profusion—singers and pianists. Alison continues to wow me with her command of style, space, and time. We are working fast, but because the singers are involved in creating the show, they tend to remember the intricacies of the staging. And Alison is like a laser surgeon of staging, slicing out what’s not quite right, preserving the healthy stuff, and (unlike most surgeons) explaining what she sees and what she wants.

Highlights? The “Swan Lake” moment in Justin and Galeano’s duet (pictured); Liv, Abi, and Galeano cowering in a corner as Justin delivered a really savage rendition of Bernstein’s “Tavouk Gueunksis”; the staggering clarity and warmth of Liv’s voice in everything she sings; Galeano’s instant evocation of a therapist’s office in John Bucchino’s manic “Painting My Kitchen,” using only two chairs; Abi’s Queen Bee hauteur in Villa-Lobos’s “Food For Thought.”

Another thing I remember from today was the way Michael and Will looked out for me. Without discussing it, we quietly divided up piano duties and covered for one another like brothers. They know what I’m good at, I know what they’re good at, they know when I might need a little help, and they are always two steps ahead of me making my life easy. I only hope I was able to be as generous and useful to them.

Galeano Salas and Justin Austin

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Caramoor Residency: Day 3, March 9

Wednesday is usually the last day of free exploration before the reality of Sunday’s performance starts to assert a kind of Realpolitik. Soon we’ll all start to see where the boundaries of our techniques and stylistic flexibility are, and we’ll cut whatever deals are necessary. But I must say that all the artists are making leaps and bounds in their music, and they tend to retain the important stuff so that Mikey and I can build on yesterday’s work. We’ve had to repeat some specifics (mainly language notes) every day, and I do try to avoid a nagging tone. But there’s no question that the musical shapes and colors are deepening. And everyone seems tireless, belting out gorgeous high phrases from morning till evening.

The big event of the day was the arrival of Alison Moritz in the afternoon. She was slightly delayed and that gave us our last hour of relaxed, free-form rehearsal in the hall as we awaited her. In fact, it took us a long time to get up from the lunch table, where everyone was lingering in a desultory way after we found out that the staging wouldn’t begin till about 4. I was waiting for someone to call the cast to order, seize the day, work on the remaining songs…until I realized that person was, in fact, myself. I am still somewhat unused to being an adult and it’s hard for me to remember that I am in charge of anything. I keep hoping this makes me more charming.

Alison is at the beginning of a very successful career as an opera director and acting teacher, but she did once study singing. I am very aware of this when I work with her, and Mikey noticed it too. She’s great with movement and intention and space and all the technical aspects of the theater, but everything she does, even the most abstract staging, seems based on the currents of the music and the nuance of the words. She can hear when the song goes from minor to major, she can hear the alternation of lyricism and rhythm, she’s aware of a flash of anger in the poem, a flash of sweetness—and she can subtly find ways to physicalize all of them without resorting to what we call “Mickey Mousing” (moving in the exact rhythm of the vocal line, for example). The result was that Mikey and I were able to continue our collaboration with the singers and our pianist Will Kelley while she put the show onstage.

A panic moment at noon: rehearsing Montsalvatge’s “El lagarto está llorando”  with Justin, Galeano sat in as our in-house Spanish coach. I had always thought that “lagarto” meant lizard, and every translation of the song I’d ever seen had it that way. “Oh no,” said Galeano, “‘lagartijo’ is lizard [I already knew that from a story I’d recently studied in my Spanish lessons]. ‘Lagarto’ is crocodile.” I had been using a translation I’d done some 25 years ago, and was mortified that I’d been telling a terrible lie for years. I briefly thought maybe I should join the Republican debates, where at least I’d have plenty of company in the mendacity department. But when I got home I thought, hmm, let’s look this up before panicking. It turns out we were both right: “lagarto” means lizard in Spain, crocodile in Latin America. Lorca was Spanish, Galeano is Latin American. Therefore the song is once again about lizards, ¡gracias a dios!

It was the first moderately warm day of the year and we were all feeling that delicious feeling that spring was on the way. Of course, it could still snow on April 1. But there is nothing like feeling the warmth of the sun on your face. I mean, it hasn’t been anywhere near 70 degrees since Christmas Day!

Pictured below: Will Kelley, beaming; Abi Levis, voguing IMG_2686

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Caramoor Residency: Day 2, March 8


Today was the first time we got into the hall, after a morning spent doing musical work in two rehearsal spaces (boys with Mikey, girls with me).  It felt kind of a bit roguish, going off with just half the cast to do private work. But it was a very good use of our time. And tomorrow I get the boys in the morning, while Mikey puts the girls through their paces.

The cause of the delay, of course, was the renovation and reconfiguration of the Music Room. (The workmen are still working there every day from 6 am till 2 in the afternoon.) We are going to perform the concert on the floor of the hall, rather than on its adorable, tiny stage where we have always done our shows at Caramoor. Getting to the piano used to involve one of the more terrifying moments of my wheelchair life, since I had to navigate an unusually steep ramp, equally fearsome in both directions. And I always needed a team of traffic directors making semaphore gestures to help me go up and down safely. Now Caramoor has finally removed the old chairs and risers from the Music Room and put the piano on the floor near a beautiful alcove full of antiquities. They will seat the audience in three sections around the playing area.

When I saw the space the way they had arranged it, I had a quiet meltdown. It was not at all what I was expecting. My fantasy was a spacious, dramatic rectangle with chairs on three sides. This was the way I had it at Wolf Trap. But they had put the piano along the long wall, and the chairs were in a sweet semi-circle, leaving only a small playing area in between the piano and the first row. It looked like traditional recital seating, only with a bigger distance between the singer and Row A of the audience. I have learned not to shoot my mouth off in situations like this, and found a way to let the very accommodating staff at Caramoor know that this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. “Show us what you want,” said Tim Coffey (who has become one of our new Caramoor heroes). So we all got to work moving furniture around and fashioned something closer to the thrust-stage idea I had in mind. Alex, the guy from Box Office, came down to see what we were doing and modified it (“You see, we’ve sold these two rows of seats so you can’t take them away…” “Yeah, but these other seats we made are better…?” “Oh yes, you’re right, no doubt. But as I mentioned, we’ve sold these seats, you see…”). By the time we left, it seemed that everyone was reasonably happy.

The sound in the hall without the risers, old chairs, and carpeting is astoundingly good. The voices carry beautifully and fill the space with light. The words are clear too—really excellent acoustics. Only one of our cast members (Abi Levis) had done a show with me (at Wolf Trap) with the audience on three sides of the playing area, so the others did a lot of singing while roaming around, testing out the idea of a song recital where they weren’t glued to the crook of the piano. Miraculously, the various pianists were able to stay with them beat for beat.

Day One is where you see the potential, the glories to come. Day Two is where you see what the issues are, as you get a sense of how far you might be able to go in one week of intensive rehearsals. The cast has stunning voices and a lot of education and experience. So it’s a question of panache, clarity, verbal delivery, timing, color, depth of feeling—all the things one might classify under the heading “Style”. Exactly how to say the word “bitter” in an English song written in 1904. How to take an unmarked tempo liberty in a French song without getting sentimental. How to keep the integrity of a word in Spanish that is set incorrectly, with the strong musical beat on the weak syllable. How to make a high note thrilling, not just respectable. How to sing a vocalise with irony. Essentially, how to go from black-and-white photorealism to color and romance.

4 o’clock is tea-time every day. Pictured: Galeano Salas and Liv Redpath, overheard discussing vocal technique. Something about bringing the head voice down to the middle register, while keeping forward placement. Or not. I was busy with my tea. But I actually heard Galeano, a man utterly lacking in pretensions, refer to his voice as “the instrument.” I love singers.

Galeano Salas and Liv Redpath
Caramoor 3.8.2016

Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Caramoor

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Caramoor Residency: Day 1, March 7

This year’s residency at Caramoor was scheduled so close to my concert at San Francisco Opera that I simply collided into the first day of rehearsal today. I’d done as much as I could to get ready but I had to break one of my recent rules: to leave a minimum of three weeks in the clear before starting a rehearsal period. Thus my excitement about the eighth Vocal Rising Stars project, always a high point of the year, was mixed with a bit of trepidation.

We got off to a great start in many ways. The program is fantastic, the cast is superb (four aces) and everyone was pretty much on top of their music. There were the predictable snafus that I could have scripted in advance (“Oh, I didn’t know I was in this number!” etc.) A couple of the singers were just coming off being sick, and this had thrown a monkey wrench in their preparation. But this is an extremely bright group of people, and they are amazingly fast.

There was a slightly sober quality to the day that I couldn’t quick diagnose at the time. I think it was caused by a few things: the vocal “Rip Van Winkle effect” (in half the cast) of not having been able to sing for the past week; the fact that our usual space, Caramoor’s majestic Music Room, is undergoing renovation (we start there tomorrow afternoon) and today we had to work in the rather plebeian Education Center; and the fact that our tenor, Galeano Salas, had to leave mid-afternoon to sing his first “Rigoletto” (the Duke, of course) at Merkin Hall. (Yes, I had given him the release, but I thought the show was Sunday….) I felt protective of him—we all did. But Galeano is an amazingly confident young man, happily belting out Balfe and Bucchino before zooming out to tackle Verdi. We all helped him choose his shirt (the red one) and the tie (none), and Michael lent him his bright red pocket square. “Now, bring that back to me, Galeano—it’s a loan! Julia Bullock wiped her brow on it. So it’s precious. You can add to patina, but I want it back.”

In truth we started at a very high level of artistry, combined with a slightly low energy level. I think the singers were feeling their way in, seemingly unaware that they were already creating a startling amount of beauty. Liv Redpath sings the bravura “Sevillanas” by Massenet so easily that we actually had to ask her to make it seem a little more difficult. And my hands survived the shock of getting thrown at the piano at highway speeds.

I look forward to tomorrow.

Steven with Justin Austin, Liv Redpath, Abigail Levis, William Kelley, and Galeano Salas.IMG_2668