March 27, 2021
Artistic Director Steven Blier recaps each day of intensive rehearsal and coaching with the 2021 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars — four vocalists and one pianist at the beginning of their professional careers. Day three faced the ever-so-common challenge of what happens when a musician rehearses a piece so much, that when asked to change it slightly, it presents itself with difficulty.
Quarantining is not anyone’s idea of fun, especially after a year of on-and-off home confinement. But the auspices asked our quintet of singers and pianist to isolate themselves for 10 days or so before coming to Caramoor, since they were going to be living together and (even more perilous) singing together. I wanted them to perform unmasked, and that was the price.
There was a payoff: everyone had a long stretch to study the music for “Le tour de France,” kind of like the reading period before college exams. And their level of preparation was amazingly high. The singers knew their stuff cold. Well, not freezing cold, but pleasantly brisk. Just right.
But sometimes when we have that much time to prepare on our own, we unwittingly wear a groove in the song, a habitual way of phrasing that may or may not be usable once we’re with our colleagues. This happens to me often, especially this year when I have been working alone non-stop.
By and large, our cast has managed to avoid that particular trap, what I call the “beet stains” of coaching—bad habits so deeply ingrained no amount of washing will get them out. Everyone’s been flexible, and no one has buckled yet under the pressure of this compressed rehearsal period.
The other day, though, I felt that Aaron was not quite finding the sexy languor of Poulenc’s “Vers le sud,” a song that describes a post-coital reverie in the south of France. I wanted to hit the re-start button on his approach, so I trotted out a technique I use for getting a singer to hear their song—the one they have practiced 200 times—from a fresh perspective: I invent a new accompaniment.
“Sing with me, Aaron.” I jettisoned Poulenc’s notes and made up a Bill Evans-style arrangement of the piece, letting the music go commando.
“Zénith,” Aaron began, as I oozed overripe augmented chords at the piano. “Tous ces regrets, ces jardins sans limites….”
It sounded pretty much the same, like a French art song he’d committed to memory for a conservatory jury. Not what I was looking for.
I rarely show irritation with my colleagues, but I think I might have barked at Aaron.
“No! NO! I am GIVING you the song, Aaron! WORK with me, LISTEN and sing WITH me!”
I was slightly abashed at having raised my voice even a bit, but Aaron absorbed it all. I know a few of his past teachers, so I am confident he’s heard a lot worse screaming than my little tantrum.
I began again with my Bain-de-Soleil Poulenc arrangement. This time Aaron sang “Vers le sud” like he meant it. It was ardent, it was sensual, and it was stylish. The phrases crested and receded, stretched and sighed. Bingo.
“Wow. Oh my! Wonderful.” Pause. “OK, Aaron. Now the acid test. Do the same thing with Bénédicte when she plays the actual piano part.”
She began and I held my breath. “Zénith,” he crooned. “Tous ces regrets, ces jardins sans limites…” And there it was: the sated, happy-sad lover at noontime on a sunny day in Antibes. A startling, magical transformation.
It was only one transformation in a day that contained many other epiphanies. Later on, Nicoletta tapped into the magic of the Brezairola from the Songs of the Auvergne and I caught Bénédicte’s eye. “Can you believe this?” we said telepathically. These are the moments you live for.
I had been a bit nervous about staging the group numbers at the end. I had a sense of what I wanted, but I was the pianist for both of them and am too busy playing to take charge. But we worked on them as a group and they look good—simple and clear, droll but not clownish. On the recital stage, less is more—but nothing is nothing.
I don’t want to drop any spoilers about the jazzy “Twin Sisters” duet from Michel Legrand’s “Les demoiselles de Rochefort.” Suffice it to say that “adorable” doesn’t begin to describe it.
I had not realized how young this group is. The eldest of them, Sam, is all of 25. You’d never know it from the sophistication of their singing and the power of their voices. I think about myself at that age and I am humbled by their strength and their maturity.