No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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Before the concert:
I’ve been abstracted and quietly jittery for a few days now—at least, when I am with my housemates making dinner or hanging out on the porch. It’s normal for me to feel the weight of the world on my shoulders before I play. Even this relatively informal, forgiving performance in Orient evokes feelings of impending failure and sadness. I notice it more here because I am with my loved ones in what amounts to a long-running commune. Some of us have shared a summer house for over a quarter century, and even the “newbies” are companions for about two decades. In this context my fugue state is very noticeable to me. I’ll be at dinner trying to act normal, well, normal for me, but my mind is elsewhere. Where? Well, the things I screwed up at rehearsal. Like the solo in “Back in the USSR”, in which I also botched the very simple chord progression at one point. This is a little embarrassing because the song has only four chords. I play it Jerry Lee Lewis style, and it is the only piece on the program for which the clunky piano is the ideal instrument. After the singers left I went over it about twenty times until I was good and tired. That Jerry Lee Lewis must have had wrists of steel. 

All in all the dress rehearsal went pretty well. Jimmy came to take pictures and he noticed a big leap in everyone’s performance since the last time he’d looked in (24 hours ago). I usually choose the final dress to have a terrifyingly lousy day at the piano and I did manage to crash and burn in four places where I have never made mistakes before. It’s a bit like electro-shock therapy for my nervous system, I guess, with a single message: don’t get too complacent. If so, it worked.   

But other than the out-and-out oy-vey moments, I was in decent control. And the singers have quietly taken over the event: it’s their show, as it should be. I’m just the pit band. 

I had feared Orient might be very hot on concert day but the opposite is true: it’s freezing. Not literally: it’s 65º. But we’re all bundled up as if it were October 1. The air-conditioning in the hall was a mitzvah earlier in the week, but now I’m longing for chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

After the concert:
First things first: a huge success, one of the best NYFOS@North Fork performances ever. Sold-out house. And a lovely response from the audience: not just laughter (when appropriate) and applause (vociferous) but also that beautiful, rapt silence during quiet numbers. This is the kind of crowd that will take in a South African art song and then give it a special ovation—a tribute not just to the composer S. Le Roux Marais, but also to baritone Thomas West who delivered it with unforgettable beauty and sadness.  

Another lovely element, in the “modified rapture” department: I didn’t have a dumpster-fire afternoon at the piano. I wouldn’t say that every song felt ideally fluid, but I ran the machine without the alarming accidents that have peppered my last few concerts here.      Another breakthrough: I relished my solo piece, “Lotus Flower” by Billy Strayhorn. I have shunned solo work for most of my career. I never felt that my piano-playing looked good naked, and I think I was often attempting things that were slightly beyond my technical wherewithal. Yesterday I was at my calmest and most centered when I played alone, a huge turning point. I rediscovered the joy of playing the piano I had as a child, but I brought an adult’s awareness to the moment—a few important minutes in my life.                                                                                                                   

The cast, of course, knocked the audience for a loop. Each of them is so impressive, and in such different ways. As you might expect, some things went better than ever, while a couple of pieces didn’t quite hit the “best of the week” marker. The bar was so high that even an 85% performance is pretty stunning. We got a concert in nine languages up and running with only a six-day rehearsal period. With staging. At a professional level. I am in awe. 

Regrets? I’ve had a few, as Sinatra sang. (Did the song’s lyricist Paul Anka really rhyme “too few to mention” with “without exemption”? Get me a rewrite.). I wish that we could get younger people more interested in attending. There were three listeners under the age of 35. I wish people would not sit in the front row and bury their head in the program, not looking at the stage even during the Porter and Coward songs. I wish I’d been able to give the cast a day off to rest their voices. I wish we could prepare for the radically different acoustics of the hall between when it is empty and when it is full (always a shocker, especially for the vocalists). I wish I could be mentally calmer and more confident (a lifelong journey). I wish I were more aware of who is in the sold-out hall and less aware of who did not [bother to] come, another foolish and soul-eating resentment. 

In short: it was a day in the life as I inch towards enlightenment. We’re now ready to do a nice long run of “Ports of Call.” Alas, it was a one-off. Congratulation to the beautiful, beautiful cast who have enriched my life–and that of the appreciative audience.

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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