March 30, 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 five, its the day before dress rehearsal!
It seems you can teach an old dog (me) new tricks. I am mercurial and intuitive, and I have a horror of repeating myself. But I have seen my colleague Bénédicte Jourdois turn the dogged pursuit of what seem like technicalities into a joyous treasure hunt. Mies van der Rohe had it right: God is indeed in the details. As we continue to work away at the fine points of the songs, we almost can’t tell if we’re infused with joy or going crazy. But the goal has remained consistent all week, and every day the performances get sharper and stronger. I am having a love affair with music.
Béné and I had very dissimilar training, but I now understand that all roads lead to Rome when you are in sync about the result you’re after. We’re not a case of good cop/bad cop, more like Jungian cop/Freudian cop, or maybe Jewish cop/Catholic cop. We have found ourselves in agreement all week about what we hear and what we want. How we get it from our young colleagues—well, that’s a case of “Vive la différence.” Bénédicte has a confident energy that I covet. I’m more ruminative and intuitive, unsure of what I plan to say until it’s out of my mouth. And yet her vermillion and my cobalt blue go together perfectly.
There were lots of epiphanies today. This is unusual for the fifth day of a residency, when everyone is usually trying to freeze their performance before dress rehearsal and concert day. Nicoletta Berry gave us a taste of magic when she sang “Brezairola,” the haunting lullaby from Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne.” The first run was ravishing, but I knew we could lift it another level. “Look, the A section at the beginning is great, so sweet and clear, don’t change anything. The B section…hmm, use the sounds of the words to soothe the baby. Cast a spell, cajole him with rhythm. And when the A section returns, your child has just about conked out. If Béné allows it—” [a quick glance into the hall to check for an alarm signal]—“darken the vowels, cover everything with a gentle umlaut. When the line goes up, sing softer. A thread of sound, an ‘inside’ sound.” I took my life in my hands and illustrated what I wanted. Sometimes it’s the only way. No one laughed.
Nicoletta is a born singer. This is not a metaphor: I used to coach her father, Scott Berry, when he was making his way as a tenor in New York over 30 years ago. She was brought up with music, and Scott obviously instilled her with taste and technique. Nicoletta has emerged with an extraordinary range of colors in her paintbox. But sometimes you have to ask her to put them on her palette and use them.
I asked her if she knew what I was after and she nodded. She then spun out a rendition of “Brezairola” that pretty much liquefied everyone in the room. Just what I outlined: lullaby, then an incantation, and finally a whisper of a melody like a love song to an infant.
Later on, I mentioned to Sam Kidd that he too could sing the “Brezairola.”
“Oh, I thought it was associated with female voices.”
“Yeah, usually, but I’m pretty sure Gérard Souzay recorded it too.”
Souzay is the iconic mid-century baritone who practically owned French art song from 1955 to 1985. He’s a reference point for all of us, a singer with authority and charisma. As I was talking to Sam I saw that Bénédicte had already Googled “Souzay-Brezairola” and come up with the very recording I’d mentioned. It was playing on her phone, and we all listened to it raptly. He sang it a whole-step lower than the original key, a lovely, straightforward rendition: A section, B section, repeated A section, the end.
When it was over we kept a respectful silence. I finally broke it.
“Really nice performance. But…sorry, Nicoletta’s was better.”
An explosive group assent. “That’s just what I was thinking!” “I was afraid to say anything, but yeah!” “Couldn’t agree more.” “Damn straight.”
Thirty years ago I learned so much from Gérard Souzay—from his performances, his recordings, and the few master classes where he’d taught me. If Nicoletta outdid him, he was one of the main artists who inspired me to show her the way.
At lunchtime we received an exciting package: two berets Nicoletta had ordered as costume pieces for the “Twin Sisters” duet from “The Young Girls of Rochefort.” Nicki is 5’3”, and Erin is 5’10”, so in this version they’ve got to be fraternal twins. But how could they be made to look alike? I suggested wigs, but they were wildly impractical and the women vetoed the idea instantly. “Hats?” I asked. “Berets?” Nicki countered. “Perfect,” we all said.
They certainly do the trick for the song, one of Michel Legrand’s most irresistible tunes. I have a feeling all four singers did the choreo together (they’ve not really shared that info with me) so I asked the women to pose with the hats, and then the men. In the gentle light of the Caramoor patio, they look like a Vermeer painting, if the Dutch master’s subjects had worn sweatshirts and hoodies.