No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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A few years ago I got a request from the administration at Caramoor to add a fifth artist to the Vocal Rising Stars program: an apprentice pianist. I turned this over in my mind for a while, considering the pros and cons of sharing accompanying duties with yet another person. After all, we already had two pianists on board, Michael Barrett (henceforth to be known by his nickname, Mikey) and me. As I mulled and mulled, the gentle request turned into something more definitive: the program was now to include four singers and a pianist. Any questions?

The expansion turned into a success. We’ve had four superb musicians on board with us: Leeann Osterkamp, Chris Reynolds, Will Kelly, and Ho Jae Lee. Each of them proved to be a powerhouse with a strong personality. Of course the unseen advantage of having a live-in accompanist at Caramoor is that the singers can rehearse off-hours. (Not that I want them using up their vocal velvet in a 24/7 sing-off.)

But there are two tricky aspects of having a pianist in the Rising Stars mix. One is personal: I have to play a lot less every day, which keeps me fresher. But also means that I don’t have as much of a chance to settle into the piano. I arrive un-warmed-up, and I sometimes never get the engine running properly. My home piano-chair is at Caramoor for the week, so I can’t begin the process at home. Meanwhile the so-called apprentice pianists are playing all day and perhaps all evening.

But the trickiest part of the endeavor is the actual teaching. This year’s pianist is Adam Rothenberg, a very gifted musician with a world-class pair of hands. He has the whole program down cold, and plays everything with smooth aplomb. I respect him and don’t want to pull him down in any way.

But we are talking about songs I’ve known for decades, including pieces I first played when Watergate was in the news. For me, they contain crevices and crannies and gleaming caves and love letters and flashes of defiance followed by the softening of regret. How do I convey the topography of the song, not just the map?

With Ho Jae, I once played the intro to John Musto’s “Litany” and gave him my verbal soundtrack to the nuances of the piece, an internal monologue that I didn’t even know I had inside me until I heard myself say it out loud.

It’s a little different with Adam. He has a very unified approach to each song, extremely respectful of the score, every marking observed, every tempo indication followed. It’s so valid and so beautifully executed that I hate to disturb it. The problem is that I sometimes understand the song—and its journey—in a very different way. Do I ask him to mimic me, do I tell him “Take time here, make a bigger bar line between these two phrases, make this chord softer”—the color-by-numbers approach of so many teachers in master classes? I find the idea a little repulsive. It takes away his autonomy as an artist.

Yet I am not satisfied with his gorgeous rendition, its perfect complexion and elegant coif. It is too perfect. For me, it still needs more nuance and sentiment. So—taking my life in my hands—I say, “Let me show you how I do it. Just so you can hear and decide.” Then I make my usual excuses about how it’s going to be a little messy, I haven’t touched this song in 10 days, my dog ate my fourth and fifth pages, I’m not warmed up, I’m having male menopause…and then I play him the song I’ve known for almost 50 years.

And yes, it is a little messy here and there. I ain’t no Juilliard pianist. But I feel my own life-essence flowing into the piano, I hear my own heart making music, I am indulgent to my occasional clumsiness. I hear the nooks and crannies, the gold and cobalt, the sweet and tough. And I am aware of the sleek ease of a pianist in his early 20s, and the weighty life-experience of a pianist in his mid-60s. I then tell Adam: “You do not need to do this my way. I just wanted you to hear what I do—instead of pushing you around phrase by phrase.”

I can’t wait to hear what he does tomorrow.

unnamed (2)There were many beauties in today’s work. Madison and Adam romped through a ferociously difficult modern song by Huw Watkins, Matt poured out an amazing amount of gorgeous sound in his Britten song, Greg honored the composer Jonathan Dove with his deeply sexy, X-rated reading of “Between your sheets you soundly sleep,” and Kayleigh found a stunningly vulnerable timbre for her jazz piece (a John Dankworth Shakespeare setting). She took all the Mozart-Handel makeup off her voice, and revealed the most sensuous alto sax.

At lunch we had a visit from the actual Queen of the Vocal Rising Stars, Eileen Schwab, whose family endowed the program. I adore Eileen and treasure her devotion to song. It’s always a red-letter day when she shows up.

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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