March 25, 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 one starts the week off with contained excitement, and coming back into the realization that humans can be “three-dimensional and non-Zoomed.“
The last time I left my house to give a concert was a year and ten days ago. It was at Caramoor, where I am Artistic Director of the Vocal Rising Stars Program. Covid was just rearing its head, and we gave our performance for an audience of 12 people–a few friends and family, plus the Caramoor staff.
Since then I’ve been making music at home, mostly with remote duet partners ranging from Berlin to San José. In the past twelve months I’ve had only two brief opportunities to collaborate in real time with onsite partners: a few songs for our Christmas show, and one piece with Isabel Leonard for the January video.
Today marked my re-entry into the career I left behind 54 weeks ago. I didn’t know how I’d feel about being in a room with a group of singers again. Of course, I craved it. By all rights I should have been jumping out of my skin with excitement today when I got to make music in real time with three-dimensional, non-Zoomed colleagues. But I’ve survived the pandemic by being measured, turning down my emotional thermostat, rolling with the punches, and practicing gratitude for what I have been able to do. I refused to focus on the privations.
My excitement today was palpable, but gentle. Mostly I just got back to work. The project at hand was a concert of French song called “Le tour de France,” devised with pianist-coach Bénédicte Jourdois The program zips the listener to the north, south, east, and west before a five-song stay in Paris at the end. Some of the songs were familiar to me, and some brand-new.
So was the cast. I’d worked with pianist Gracie Francis and mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner face-to-face at Juilliard back in the day of pre-masked coachings. But I had more modern relationships with soprano Nicoletta Berry, tenor Aaron Crouch, and baritone Samuel Kidd. Yes, I’d worked with them all, but only online. I’d never met them in person. Their artistry was vivid and compelling as experienced on my Mac, and I felt confident hiring them for the gig.
It is a peculiarly modern experience to transfer from a previous Zoom collaboration to a face-to-face musical ensemble. Aaron, Nicoletta, and Sam were indeed the gifted, charismatic vocalists and interpreters I intuited from the scratchy, peaky sound of our FaceTime encounters. There were some surprises. I thought Sam was going to be a cute, compact guy, but he’s actually a rangy 6’3”. I had pegged Nicoletta as a long-stemmed beauty rose, but she’s a powerhouse 5’3”. Last time I saw Aaron (at the November NYFOS concert Q&A) he was going for an ornate, modern hairstyle, but today he sported a more conventional cut.
If my feelings about ending a long, long artistic fast were quiet, they were also deep. I am still vibrating to the sound of those four colorful, plangent voices. It’s taken me a few hours to acknowledge the emotional power of live music, the way it can invade your sensibility and change your inner pH. I am so grateful to all four members of the cast.
My last blog was on concert day last year, March 15, 2020. At that time I wrote: “All of us face months of cancellations, gigs that have gone up in smoke. We’ll be back onstage one day, but this was the last time for some months that we’d be singing and playing in a concert. Before retreating to our corners for a few months, we offered a hymn to the human spirit, a message of hope, a promise to return. And we’ll make good on it.”
We have kept our promise. We’re not yet at the point when we can welcome an audience into the hall—you’ll still have to watch it online. But the ice is beginning to crack.