No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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Preparing and performing NYFOS concerts is an all-consuming endeavor. Michael Barrett, my co-leader, can attest to this. So can Charles McKay and Claire Molloy, who have masterminded the administration for some years now with tireless grace. We are in a daily (and often nightly) wind-tunnel of schedules, negotiations, translations, editing, grant-writing, note-bashing, and ensemble rehearsal. Therefore when our round-number anniversaries come up, we emerge dazedly from the trenches to mount a celebration for ourselves and our audience, feeling somewhat like a groundhog on February 2. Years ago Justin Davidson called NYFOS “the longest-running song party in New York.” He had no idea. At that time we were somewhere around our Crystal Anniversary—year 15—with China (20) and Silver (25) still to come. And now our Pearl Anniversary initiates our fourth decade, with no end in sight.

At each of these milestones I recount our Creation Myth, so that by now I assume everyone knows the catechism. But of course I am still asked, “How did NYFOS get its start?” Here’s the quick version: late in 1984, Michael Barrett was busy planning a tribute to the composer/lyricist Marc Blitzstein for a Tully Hall performance in January of 1985. He was working with a director named Paul Lazarus, who was a friend of one of my housemates on 84th Street at the time. I was starting the run of a show at the Clurman on Theater Row, A Kurt Weill Cabaret with two of my artistic mentors, Martha Schlamme and Alvin Epstein. Fortuitously, the reviews came out the night Paul was over at our place for dinner. Hearing that they were good, I barged out to buy the papers. Stephen Holden in the Times was positive but didn’t mention my name, not even in the listing of participants and producers. But Clive Barnes, in the Post, “Steven Blier was the pianist throughout, and he was excellent.” That one adjective was enough for Paul to recommend me to Michael, who needed a second pianist to take over some of the songs in the first half of the concert.

Michael came to hear me in the Kurt Weill show, and afterwards we went out for a drink. I was a bit intimidated by him—I mean, he hobnobbed with Leonard Bernstein, while I was still playing more auditions and voice lessons than actual concerts. In spite of our prince-and-pauper status our collaboration went well, though I played manically fast at the Tully performance (nervous excitement). My friendship with Michael continued after that big event, and so, occasionally, did our collaborations. Then in May of 1988, Michael got an invitation from his friend B.C. Vermeersch, who ran the Greenwich House Music School. B.C. wanted more people to know about his school, and offered Michael the use of its sweet, petite second-floor concert hall which housed two onstage pianos and had room for about 100 audience members. After our three concerts in the spring, B.C. invited us back for more. “Sure,” I told Michael. “But not solo vocal recitals. I think we should do something new—thematic concerts that explore ideas and cultures and poets.” I had gotten the fever when I heard Graham Johnson’s Songmaker’s Almanac in Israel three years earlier. The idea had been brewing for some time, and here was the opportunity.

Joseph Machlis, the musicologist, writer, and translator, had given Michael a thousand dollars with the instructions, “Do something interesting with it.” Here was something very interesting indeed: a new home for song in an intimate setting. Our  graphic designer dreamed up the name “New York Festival of Song”—I didn’t have a clue what to call it—and we opened with a Shakespeare program starring Brenda and Braden Harris, with Blythe Danner reading sonnets and monologues.

At the beginning we were punch-drunk. The bigger-name singers I’d played for weren’t interested in learning anything new or taking any risks (i.e., singing a Strauss song they’d never heard of, or learning the verse to a famous Irving Berlin song). The audiences outside New York that I encountered through Young Concert Artists (with Bill Sharp and Chris Trakas) also preferred the classics. That way, they felt, they could pass more accurate judgment on our performances, which seemed to be their reason for going to concerts. Finally Michael and I had a chance to do all the crazy things we’d dreamed of. Audiences responded, and for a number of years NYFOS was like the Good Humor truck: ring the bell, and people would come running. One hundred people and we were sold out.

It is interesting to look back and see how our shows have evolved as the world has changed. In 1988 people were not glued to their computers and phones. Music-lovers were more accustomed to going out to hear live music. A few years ago I invited someone to a NYFOS concert and her response was, “Oh, I don’t know—is it going to be streamed?” This was a wake-up call for me—not to throw our performances onto the internet, but to make something that strongly enticed people to be part of a live audience in a hall. They are rewarded for their attendance: in our headphone world, the communal experience of music has taken on a heightened magic. The vibrations in the room feel more intense than ever.

But what exactly does entice audience members to run to the NYFOS Good Humor truck in 2018? I started to figure this out when I did Manning the Canon, a program about gay men. It debuted not with NYFOS but with Jesse Blumberg’s Five Boroughs Music Festival. Jesse invited me to do a show for his group, posing the question: “Is there something you can’t do at NYFOS that you’ve always wanted to do?” The truth is that I had proposed the idea to NYFOS’s powers-that-be in 2009 and it had been shot down. “It will make some audience members feel excluded,” I was told. Another said, “I would feel uncomfortable.” So I gave the project to Jesse, and it turned into one of those unforgettable, red-letter nights. The premiere was at the LBGTQ Center on 13th Street, and the place was on fire with excitement. The show lasted just under an hour and a half, without intermission. Michael Barrett was there and said, “We should do this on our series.” He thought for a minute. “And it’s a perfect length. I love this format. All our shows should be like this.” When NYFOS did the show a year later, Anthony Tommasini awarded us one his very good reviews, complete with a huge picture.

I was stunned. Every time I had consciously tried to woo the critics I had failed. In 2006, I programmed a difficult twelve-tone piece by Luigi Dallapiccola, thinking it would gain me street cred. I absolutely hated it and it was murder to learn, but it was non-lyrical and intellectual and I thought it would open doors. No one cared. No critics attended. The audience waded through it patiently. What everyone talked about afterwards was the encore, “Moon River” by Henry Mancini. Other such calculations failed in similar manner. I surrendered: we’d survive on what seemed most beautiful, most interesting.

I began to see a Venn diagram: things that fascinated me in one circle, things that fascinated the general public in another circle. I realized that NYFOS had to gravitate towards the intersection of those two circles. Now, I admit I am not always great at interpreting that Venn diagram. We’re opening our next season with a W. C. Handy tribute called The Birth of the Blues. I chose it because I am very excited about the music and have a tremendous cast to sing it. We also had an opportunity for a second performance out of town, and I was sure that our heartland producers would jump at a blues program. Alas, no. It turned out that they had no idea who W. C. Handy was, and nothing could persuade them that the show would charm their audience. I was discomfited just today when I told a fellow-artist we were doing a Lorca concert next year. This highly cultured man stared at me and said, “Um, who’s Lorca?” John Venn would probably say I needed to get my eyes checked in order to read his diagrams more clearly.

At Greenwich House, we could just come up with a cool idea, slap a title on it, and the project would almost always fly. Those days are over. The world has changed. The more topical, the more of-the-moment our concerts are, or can be made to seem, the hotter they appear to the public. Poetic titles have also gone by the wayside. Ticket-buyers want to know what music they’re going to hear that night, and they aren’t wooed by flowery phrases (The Voluptuous Muse) or conundrums (Words Without Songs). Both were great concerts, but tough sells. On the other hand, the blunt Ned Is Ninety sold out, with a line of people on 67th Street trying to get in. Everyone knew what that evening was going to be about.

We live in an age where the standard repertory operas are struggling to seem relevant. In a recent production of Norma at Covent Garden, the druid priestess’s children are glued to iPads. The Met’s Rigoletto has pole-dancers and garish neon lights. Everything is supposed to be “relatable” (a horrible new non-word), which often means giving nineteenth-century characters cell phones, or Mozart characters cardigans and harlequin glasses. Meanwhile other classics are under attack: just this morning I heard the WNYC theater critic proclaim that Carousel should not be revived anymore because the male lead is a wife-beater. Clearly no one should be seeing that.

If Norma and Carousel are in trouble, what chance does the song recital have?

The answer lies in the flexibility of the form and the eternal value of sung stories. Song programs—well, NYFOS’s, anyway—combine elements of theater and guided meditation. Some programs (like Art Song on the Couch) are more introspective, some (like A Modern Person’s Guide to Hooking Up and Breaking Up) are more antic. An early NYFOS motto was “No two alike!” It was a risky ethos in an age where branding no longer meant something ranchers did to cattle, but something everyone needed to do in order to establish an identity in their market. Our brand was simply to let song have its infinite variety, and to make musical meals that nourished our audience. Over the long haul, it’s the idea that works best for us.

All of this seems truer and deeper in 2018 than ever. The more chaotic the world is, and the more mechanized and formulaic popular music becomes, the more audiences respond to the balm of unamplified singing and acoustic accompaniment. I feel it and value it at every performance we give. It takes my breath away. But nowadays there is something else we’re thinking about: what world does that audience live in, and what songs would provide them with perspective and clarity? Challenge and comfort? What piece of history would shed light on where we are now?

In the last seasons we’ve established a few ways of doing this. One is by doing concerts that are explicitly topical, like PROTEST or the 80th birthday tribute to John Corigliano and William Bolcom at Juilliard. These programs were time-sensitive: they needed to be seen and heard right now. Other projects reflect on our times in a meaningful way, even though the music is not hot off the press. Next year’s W. C. Handy show, for example, pays tribute to one of America’s most important African-American musicians, someone who paved the way for generations of black artists. And Lorca? A staggeringly gifted gay Spanish poet, brutally murdered by the Fascists. I wanted his voice to be heard in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The resonances with our own times are crystal clear to me—but I realize our job will be to make those resonances crystal clear to the public.

We solved another issue in recent seasons when we began our modern music series called NYFOS Next. Programming contemporary song can be quite difficult in the context of thematic programs, which have very specific demands of their own. All of this came to a head six years ago. We were in a bind: a number of important composers wanted to write us new pieces to celebrate our 25th anniversary, but the only possible place for their songs was the December show, Women. While most of the poems in their songs were by women, three of the four composers were men. Unable to turn down the gift of world premieres by musicians I respect, I lost control of the program. Women wasn’t a bad concert—in fact, it remains a favorite NYFOS evening for a few friends–but I felt it was a wrestling match I’d lost.

The solution? We made a home for contemporary song, so that we could explore 21st-century music in all its variety while continuing to delve into the full range of musical history.  I’ve encountered many beautiful works at NYFOS Next, and when I hear something I especially like, I try to build a program around it. That happened last December when Michael programmed Daniel Sabzghabaie’s At the Door. It is our first piece in Farsi, and we’ll bring this stunning duet to the mainstage next season, paired with other immigrant voices in a show called Hyphenated Americans.

As you can see, our thinking has evolved over the years, and I know it will continue to do so. What remains constant is the joy of collaborating with other musicians, and the addictive pleasure of song itself. Tonight we celebrate our Pearl Anniversary with a string of pearls—actually a double strand: a collection of songs we love, performed by a cast of singers and instrumentalists we treasure.

In a burst of enthusiasm last fall, Michael said, “Ooh, let’s do one song from each of our past seasons!” I privately wondered how we’d fit 29 songs onto one concert without going into overtime, but I gamely scanned every single NYFOS program from Season One to the present onto my hard drive, and plunged into the maelstrom. After a few serious attempts and a lot of anxiety, I gave up the idea and reverted to my typical blend of practicality and idealism. What songs would NYFOS wear to a party? What things from our past would surprise and delight? What music did I long to hear again? And then the practicalities: what songs would make this cast shine their brightest? And which cast members would have the time to learn a few new pieces?

You’ll hear the results tonight, a collection of American, Scandinavian, Russian, French, Spanish, Cuban, and English songs from our past 30 years. Many of them haven’t been programmed in decades. Rehearsing each one, I am almost overcome with reverence for the composers and poets who created them. I remain awed by the miracle of beautiful, expressive singing. And I still look at the piano as my best frenemy, a capricious mistress all the more delicious when she finally yields to my touch.

All of us at NYFOS are in debt to our faithful audience, the dance partner we couldn’t live without. I was stopped the other day at the bus stop by a man who exclaimed, “NYFOS is a reason not to leave New York City!” A heavy responsibility. But I think we’re up to it. After all, we’re just getting going.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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