No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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We ran the program in order today, but I resolved not to gloss over anything with the cast. They are packing four weeks’ worth of study into six days, and I want to give them everything I possibly can without blowing their fuses. I’m also trying to hold onto their best work before they start gilding the lily. A given song might be breathtakingly perfect on Tuesday, and then develop some exaggerations (or go slightly dead) on Thursday. I know what these people are capable of and I don’t want them to give any less than their best. The trick is to understand as quickly as possible what’s derailing a previously functioning song (in certain cases) or seduce the singer into communing with their music-making angel (in others). 

I feared that doing detail work in the context of a first complete run might demoralize the cast. But I soon saw that they relished the attention. Thomas, who had been delivering a near-perfect rendition of Guastavino’s “Pampamapa,” dove into it too hard today. It was clear he was trying to express the anger and resentment of the narrator, but he was overplaying his hand and knocking the song off its moorings. “Thomas, you need to do a slow burn. You can’t have a hissy-fit in the first line—not that you are,” I hastily added. “The thing is: you know this song in your bones. You don’t have to go looking for it, it’s there. You can build it slowly. It’s as if the character is saying, ‘OK, you’re sending me out of my country in exile. But I’ll be back for your funeral.’” Then I repeated a maxim that I am sure I have told him many times before. “First you work on the song. Then the song works on you. You’re at that stage with this piece, and you don’t have to drive it. It’s going to well up from your guts.” We tried the beginning a few times, allowing it to settle. Everything was back on track.

Elaine was getting closer and closer to her Brazilian tango (“Nenê” by Nazareth) but something was still missing. I suspected it might be an issue of language—this is her first song in Portuguese, and she’d been working mainly from recordings. We went through the poem slowly and indeed there were a number of tiny mistakes, some of which I’d heard and some of which had slipped by me. Portuguese consonants are deceptive. For example, the word “ritmado” is actually pronounced “ree-chi-mah-doo,” and the word “alma” is “ow-ma.” Portuguese is also language with a lot of nasal vowels, and once you get them right they add a uniquely Brazilian spice to the dish. “Oh, the n’s make the vowel into a nasal….!” murmured Elaine, the lightbulb turning on. “Yeah, and the m’s too. So ‘bem’ is pronounced a bit like the word ‘buying’” (pronounced with a heavy Spanish accent). We ran a Dustbuster over the whole song and soon the silky essence of the music started to emerge. If she holds on to 75% of it, I’ll consider it a win. As for the other 25%–well, Portuguese is a language that has several different pronunciations, and it has changed over the decades too. Therefore it’s forgiving of small errors. It will still taste right.

I programmed a short piano piece towards the end of the second half, “Lotus Blossom” by Billy Strayhorn. I’m trying to build a small repertoire of solos, and my jazz piano teacher Jason Yeager had brought me a lead sheet for this exquisite tune. It was a favorite of Strayhorn’s mentor Duke Ellington—he often used it as the final piece in his concerts, and he also played it at Strayhorn’s funeral. I’ve included it in “Ports of Call” as our visit to Japan because of their mythology surrounding the lotus flower. (Yes, I know it’s a stretch.) In the rush to get all the vocal material ready I hadn’t touched “Lotus Blossom” all week, so I played it yesterday. I was gratified to see the cast members put down their cell phones and fall under the spell of the music, a kind of jazz bel canto only Billy Strayhorn could create. Even on that beat-up piano, the genie emerged from the bottle.        

The four singers wanted to make dinner for Jim and me, a very generous offer. Since no houses in Orient are wheelchair-accessible I offered my kitchen as the battlefield. They needed a little coaching along the way—“Salmon is great, I love it, but it’s not local, how about, oh, swordfish?” “Um, if you’re buying fish, why don’t you wait until the day we’re going to cook it?” 

It’s fascinating to see these four in the kitchen. The boys seemed a bit more experienced, and once again I saw the 500-horsepower engine that runs under Thomas’ quiet demeanor. He was grillmeister, potato-timer, and coordinator for a truly lovely supper. Elaine and Olivia asked how we usually cook our green beans and Jim said casually, “Oh, we steam them.” Suddenly the two women are huddled in the corner of the kitchen on their phone—looking up “How To Steam Vegetables.” They’re starting to panic, until Jimmy says—“Oh, the steamer is up on the top shelf.” Relief settles over their anguished faces. “Thank GOD….because every entry said ‘Put the vegetables in a steamer-basket” and we’ve never seen one before.”

NYFOS at North Fork: an education on so many levels.

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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