Steven Blier, Artistic Director of the Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars (VRS), shares his impressions in this annual blog series. VRS is a week-long mentoring intensive for aspiring vocalists at Caramoor.
Wednesday is usually when we start to see where the glories and the rough spots of the program are. It is also the last day when we permit ourselves to feel carefree and pleasantly exploratory about it all. “What key did you decide on for that song?” I say in a calculatedly casual tone. “Oh, I’ll let you know tomorrow…” “Can you fix up the mushy spots in the ensemble?” I toss off later on. “Oh, sure, we’ll practice when we get back to the dorm.” “Are you going to do that phrase in one breath?” “Um, I hope so! We’ll see…” “Printed cadenza or something of your own?” “Ah! I’m…still deciding…!”
All these answers hang in the air and I take them in stride. Because tomorrow we head into the let’s-get-serious mode when we have to start preparing for the Sunday performance. The words “off book” haven’t been mentioned; with a cast this experienced and responsible neither Michael nor I feel that we have to play schoolmarm about getting the songs memorized. In fact, I like to keep as much of a feeling of playfulness as possible throughout the whole rehearsal process. I liken it to letting Jell-O harden in the refrigerator. It simply happens in the course of time if you mix the ingredients together properly. You just hope that you got it into the fridge in time to be ready when the guests arrive.
Today was our second day with Giuseppe Mentuccia, to whom I gave the nickname Il Principe, “the prince.” His thought processes about music are different from mine and Michael’s, and therefore of great value. He spoke about the consonants as “the trap set of Italian vocal music,” and showed us how they define the contour of the line. “This section is like a banda, we have them in every town, you know, town band.” He was speaking about the opening of the Donizetti duet. “BAAAAM, ba-BAM ba-BAM ba BAM-ba,” he sang. Suddenly the little unaccompanied vocal lines made sense—banda volgare unexpectedlyturned into dolce bel canto. About the Pizzetti song, “Is bardic, is ancient, is primordial. But is not tragic.” About Bellini: “In classical period, the phrase goes to the downbeat. In romantic era, the phrase goes to the note before the downbeat.” As Giuseppe spoke, I felt as if I were hearing my own thoughts in a very loose Italian translation. We both wanted the same adjustments; but our cultural differences led us to express them in contrasting ways, as if we were walking into the same room through two different doors.
I finally got to work with our pianist Chris today; up till now he’d spent the lion’s share of the day in the other studio collaborating with Michael. Chris is a spookily smart and eerily gifted young guy (young, as in 19 years old). His playing is so easy and accurate that it can be a bit unnerving. He’ll come up with things like, “The only Busoni I ever played was his piano concerto. Really, really hard, and I hated it.” Pianists divide into two basic camps: concerto guys, and the rest of us working stiffs. I’ve never had the aptitude for using the piano as an athletic event, and I don’t even like listening to concertos all that much. To me, they are the porn of classical music.
The question remained: how do I teach someone who makes music—and talks about music—with a kind of assurance and virtuosity I never had? Certainly not by knocking his confidence down. Instead, I tried to show him gently how I think about making character and drama at the piano. No big overarching theories—just specific moments. After all, I have performed several thousand songs by now. “I take an extra second here to let the thought sink in,” “I know there’s no diminuendo written but if you play these two notes just a little softer it sounds as if the curtain is going up on the song,” “Maybe if you lift the second beat it sounds a bit more inebriated…no, not that much, the character isn’t plastered, just a little buzzed.” I myself appreciate detail more than generalities when people work with me, and I also do not like feeling over-controlled by a colleague. I could see that by loosening up a bit of Chris’s tight, incisive attack his music-making got more pliant, more subtle, more vocal.
Yesterday had begun and ended in a rosy glow, starting with Bix Beiderbecke and ending with a late-evening drink with my colleague, the English pianist Julius Drake. Julius schlepped all the way to my apartment just to spend a few minutes with me, and I was glad that he finally got to meet my partner Jim. (I guess I should get used to using the “h” word—“husband.” Give me time.) Yesterday, alas, was bookended by sourness. I greeted the day awakening from a nightmare, screaming “I CAN’T BREATHE! I CAN’T BREATHE!” (This is a rare occurrence for me.) And the end of the evening brought a double-whammy: I ran over my down coat and ripped it pretty badly, covering my hallway in feathers. It now looks like the home of an angry drag queen or an urban branch of Frank Perdue out by the front door. And I found out that my wheelchair, which has been in the repair shop for two months, got returned to the wrong address. When I think of the standards we musicians have in our profession versus the appalling slovenliness of health care for people with disabilities, I become pretty enraged. Depending on a wheelchair isn’t the most amusing thing I can think of, but god help you when your wheels break down. Because you are in the hands of a very screwed-up system where the bar is set so low you can’t even see it.
The Schwab Vocal Rising Stars will conclude their week at Caramoor with a performance on Sunday, March 15.