March 29, 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 four faced the difficulty of the French language!
Normally the fourth day of a seven-day residency is a clammy experience. The concert looms, the window for fixing problems is closing, the music and words need to be memorized, and everyone is getting tired. In short, the party’s over.
That was blessedly not true today. We ran this project a little differently than in previous years: we gave the singers the option of a slightly longer stay that included a day off, and they unanimously voted yes. That meant that Sunday—yesterday—was the eye of the hurricane. In truth, we all needed a little bit of time to regroup. And since Monday was designated “off-book day,” the singers had a chance to catch their breath and work on memorization.
I think the cast must have been fairly industrious during their free day, because they were (1) very much on top of their music, and (2) a bit tired. Still, the spirit in the room was good. Certain kinds of progress with a song can only happen once the performer gets his or her face out of the score, and there was more sweetness and more depth in their work than there had been two days ago.
The Covid restrictions are still in place: the singers, who have previously quarantined, can work together unmasked. Bénédicte and I, who have been vaccinated, can also work with them unmasked as long as we are eight feet from them. At lunch we’re at the same long table, but Béné and I are at one end and everyone else is at a discreet distance away. Sadly, we can’t be photographed as a group unless we wear masks (and what is the point of that?) or sit apart from them. We tried it, but you can see me wincing.
None of this has stopped us from working in an intimate way. We have not used the other rehearsal room to split into two groups; I did not hire any other guest coaches this year. We have spent all of our time together as a septet, and because Béné and I have the same goal in mind and kept true to it, the process has had a rare feeling of consistency.
What is that goal? Well, none of our American cast actually speaks French. But we work every day on the poetry, searching out the nuances and beating the vowels into submission. When they sing their French songs, we want a feeling not just of correctness but authenticity. We want them to own those words and sing them with authority. We want them to sound as if they wrote the songs. We want the French audience to tune and say, “Oh la la, pas mal.”
There were some stunning moments today. When Samuel Kidd began the Charles Trénet song “Douce France,” he launched the tune with a suaveness that took our breath away. Most Americans have trouble with the conversational French “r” that we’re trying to use in the popular songs, and truth to tell four days ago Sam’s sounded a bit like Yiddish. Today it purred of him like Eartha Kidd seducing a rich businessman. He’s a veritable Carvel machine of music, a fountain of aural delight.
In truth they’re all killin’ it. For some months I’ve been comforting my friends, “There is light at the end of the tunnel.” Now I know that my words of hope were actually true. Listening to Nicoletta Berry, Erin Wagner, Aaron Crouch, Sam Kidd, and Gracie Francis is my reward for getting through twelve and a half months of musical solitary confinement.