March 12, 2020
Bénédicte Jourdois joined us today. She is one of the premier French coaches in America, a superb pianist, a peerless musician, an assistant conductor at the Met, a colleague of mine at Juilliard.
They don’t call her Bénédicte for nothing — she is a blessing.
Béné is mostly asked to work on French repertoire, and I actually added another French song to the program when I knew she would be a guest teacher. But I also thought she might like working on music from other countries. I wasn’t surprised that she easily took on the German-language pieces, but she threw me for a loop today when she corrected Elaine’s Russian in her Rachmaninoff song. “Not ‘tishuhnah’ — ‘tishina.’ And you don’t pronounce ‘mnoga’ quite right.’” Where did all that come from?
I first knew Béné in her student days, and I still have to make a mental adjustment when I see how assured and authoritative she is now, a sought-after professional at the top level. There is never any uncertainty or waffling when she coaches. “Bleu is almost a two-syllable word: b’leu,” she asserts. “You can make an accent with a consonant in a French word, but it’s going to be the first consonant, not one in the middle. If you double the later one, it will sound Italian.” And my favorite: “Avoid hitting the downbeat in French. It’s the most boring part of the measure.” I’ve studied French since I was a kid, and I know in my ear — in my soul — how the language goes. But Bénédicte puts into words all the things I understand by instinct. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, she puts a name on everything that grows, flies, flits, and crawls.
We did the whole concert today for the first time, a stumble through that took us from 11:30 AM till 6:20 PM. My energy dropped at tea-time and once again I took a siesta. But Bénédicte and Michael were like the Eveready Bunny, pushing through with gusto and clarity from overture to encore. All three of us took turns coaching, though we gave pride of place to our visitor. The cast was getting a lot of feedback and direction, so I thought it best to keep my comments to a minimum. How much coaching can a singer take at one time? Michael sees things through the eyes of a conductor, Béné through those of a European-trained virtuoso pianist with opera-house experience.
And me….? I seem to be a pu-pu platter of Steve Stuff that I’d be hard pressed to describe. I didn’t go to music school. My coaching puts music, literature, psychology, physical empathy, theatrical savvy, and improvisation into a blender, sometimes to good effect. At one point today I thought the only way to get Elaine to sing the Rachmaninoff the way I wanted was to improvise a new accompaniment for the song — something more dreamy, relaxed, and sensual than the strenuous piano concerto Rachmaninoff actually wrote. “You’re describing a wonderland of dreams, not doing a sales pitch on a sleep clinic,” I chided. (I knew Elaine could take it. She’s tough and smart.) Pretty soon the ecstasy was there, the hard-sell gone.
Our job will be to keep the ecstasy for the next six days, even though Bénédicte is gone. We’re on it.