March 9th, 2020
I was already looking forward to my annual residency at Caramoor, the twelfth season of the Vocal Rising Stars Program. But as the world started to come apart at the seams, my trip to Katonah became more alluring than ever. This year’s program is called “The Art of Pleasure,” a concert I devised originally for Wolf Trap a few years ago. It was meant to remind an increasingly anxious audience about the things that make life worth living, ranging from the usual suspects (love, dreams, the seaside in summer) to less conventional ones (sexual congress on the down-low and a variety of wild self-indulgences). The message is even more timely now than it had been in 2018. The corona virus has everybody freaked out. Just this evening I read that Juilliard, where I teach, is suspending classes until the end of the month.
As Michael Barrett and I drove out of the city today, though, everything seemed peaceful. The temperature was in the mid-60, the sky was picture-book clear, and we were getting out of Manhattan for the day. It was bliss. As my friend Amber Edwards used to say, “Carpe diem when you see ‘em.”
There is always a delicious suspense about that first day. I like all the singers I chose for the residency, but will they form a strong ensemble? The all arrived the night before — are they getting along, or are they already at each others’ throats? When we start working, are they going to be on top of their songs or somewhat at sea?
It turned out to be a particularly good day, vastly abetted by the arrival of our first guest teacher Albert Carbonell. I’ve been in touch with Albert via email for a few years, but we only met in person a few days ago. My friend Roger Evans introduced us when I first did “The Art of Pleasure” two years ago. I was looking for a Catalan coach, and Roger (who now lives in Catalonia) thought his Barcelona-born composer friend (who now lives in Queens) might fill the bill. Albert was generous with his time, clearly grateful to find an American who was almost as passionate about Catalan music as he. He’s especially devoted to the composer Eduardo Toldrà, a musician I too revere and who is featured on this program. For the Wolf Trap cast Albert made voice recordings of the three poems in Catalan, and they have come in very handy several times since he first sent them.
Albert has a deep, rich speaking voice, and I always assumed he was an elder statesman. When he showed up at my door last week, I was surprised to see that the orotund voice belonged to a man half my age. Albert is a sweet-tempered man of great charm, with a gentle spirit. Once again he showed great kindness and generosity as he took me through the poems phoneme by phoneme, answering all my questions and grounding me in the music. I carefully danced around the idea of his coming to Caramoor before working up the courage to ask him outright. He accepted, found a ride, and joined us.
The Catalan language is deceptive for anyone who sings in Italian or Spanish. There are unexpected differences between the way things are spelled and the way they are pronounced. The v’s are rendered as b’s. At one point Albert was explaining enthusiastically about the “bowels” of Catalan and I thought I saw a cloud of confusion descend on the room. “Um, if I could interrupt for a second,” I said, “when Albert says ‘bowels’ he’s referring of course to ‘vowels.’”
Once again peace reigned. And the art of pleasure became the pleasure of art.