Each day of this week we will post a blog from Schwab Vocal Rising Stars Artistic Director Steven Blier, as he shares his interactions and impressions from spending time with the 2023 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars: Shelén Hughes, soprano; Maggie Reneé, mezzo-soprano; Colin Aikins, tenor; Joseph Parrish, baritone; Yihao Zhou, piano. The week includes daily coaching, rehearsals, and workshops, culminating in a performance entitled Mediterranean — a musical voyage around the Mediterranean Sea, with stops in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia. Tickets are still available for this performance and are free for students 18 and under.
[pictured: Albert Carbonell]
A few things threw our normal Thursday agenda out the window. Normally we would do our first complete stumble-through of the program in order. But when Bénédicte and I arrived at Caramoor, after an extended car-ride conversation about the perils of dating weight-lifters, our tenor (Colin Aikins) greeted us with the news that he was feeling a little hoarse. He wanted to take it easy today, and we told him to mark (sing half-voice) all the big stuff. “I’ll be fine, but I’m just getting over being sick and I don’t have my stamina back.” “No worries. Just…please keep a lid on it.” (Colin is prone to getting carried away.)
That alone wouldn’t have stopped us from going through the show number by number. The schedule change had to do with two language coachings that we planned for today. Remember that our concert, “Mediterranean,” includes songs in nine languages, and we’ve had to call in the militia to get all the rep prepared properly. Session #1 was a Zoom meeting with soprano Alexandra Loutsion to work on our Greek songs. In the big wide world, Alex is a dramatic soprano who has taken on some of opera’s biggest challenges—Brünnhilde, Elektra, Turandot. But while she plays goddesses and mythical murderesses onstage, in real life she is sweet, gentle, helpful, and generous. Maggie Reneé hopped through her Greek art song (“I Achtida”) for Alex, who gave her high marks for both her diction and her singing. I am always fascinated with the tiny refinements that a native speaker can pick up, even over Zoom. For example, Greek has a guttural “ch” sound like Hebrew and German, but it is produced about a millimeter higher in the throat, a nuance I could not hear at first—until I tried it both ways and found the sweet spot myself.
Colin was next, with a soulful piece by the iconic composer Mikis Theodorakis, “The Train Leaves at Eight.” He was able to sing this one song today because it sits in a very comfortable range—no need to baby himself. His Greek was pretty damn good, but still needed a few tweaks. In particular, he was confused about the two “th” sounds, written as “dth” and “th” in the transliteration.
“Oh, I’m sorry that’s giving you trouble,” apologized Alex. “I was trying to distinguish them for you. ‘Dth’ is the voiced one, like the word ‘though.’ ‘Th’ is the unvoiced one, like ‘thing.’”
I could see Colin chewing this over, so I stepped in to help. Trying to imagine a phrase he could remember, I blurted out, “Colin, it’s like the two ‘th’ sounds in ‘that thong.’ Can you say that?”
“That thong,” he repeated, a bit too easily.
“Good, you’ve got it.” And so he did. The Theodorakis song sounded fantastic—and what a beautiful piece it is. It was new to Alex Loutsion, and I am so glad to have introduced her to it.
In the afternoon, we had an onsite visitor: my friend and Catalan coach Albert Carbonell. I’ve known him for a few years now—our mutual friend Roger Evans introduced us. Albert has stepped in to help me every time I do songs in Catalan, but these days he lives in Barcelona, so our sessions have been over the phone or on FaceTime. By some miracle, the daughter of one of his close American friends is getting married this week, and her wedding brought Albert back to New York. I hadn’t seen him since March 2020, when he came to Caramoor just before the pandemic shut everything down. Though that was only three years ago, it feels like a lifetime.
A few words about Albert. He is a composer, and also something of a scholar of music from Catalonia. But his cultural roots run deep and wide, and his breadth of musical knowledge constantly surprises me. He seems to have heard everything. He is also one of the sweetest, kindest men on the planet, exuding an aura of serenity and acceptance. Our encounters have been few, but they are always intense. It’s not too much to say that we loved one another at sight—a true bromance.
As it turns out, Bénédicte and Albert knew each other when they were at school together twenty years ago, a fact that Albert figured out when he saw her on last year’s Zoom call at Caramoor, but which Béné only realized a few days ago. “Oh my god, Steve, we were in this terrible conducting class together. I didn’t see him too much—it was a class a lot of people cut—but I do remember being at a party or two with Albert.” I am starting to feel that Béné knows practically everybody in the world. “Xi Jinping?” I imagine her exclaiming. “Oh, he was my brother’s swimming coach…”
Albert gave a listen to all four of our Spanish songs, and found the diction excellent. It wasn’t a surprise that Shelén (born in Bolivia) and Maggie (a veteran of five years of study) nailed their Castilian, but Joseph, newer to the language, also sang it perfectly. Working on Iberian repertoire with a native musician was a special treat for me. Albert’s sense of rhythm, the way he perceives the constant influence of percussion in the music—drums, tambourines, castanets—gave me a new doorway into the atmosphere of every song. I tend to look for rhythmic nuance, the little bends and turns that lend music its gracefulness, its individual character. That isn’t wrong, but it works better when you first have the snap and crackle in place.
“Albert’s sense of rhythm, the way he perceives the constant influence of percussion in the music—drums, tambourines, castanets—gave me a new doorway into the atmosphere of every song.”
Albert and I share a love for the music of the Barcelona composer Eduardo Toldrà—a hero in Catalonia, but not well-known in the states. Our concert opens with one of his loveliest pieces, “Canticel.” Simply playing it for Albert was a coaching in itself; sometimes a rapt listener teaches you something that words can’t express. Finally he said, “Hearing that music at Caramoor…” and then stopped for a moment. “Well, it’s tremendously moving to me—just knowing that you love it, and Shelén, you sing it so beautifully, and you bring it to your American audience.” I asked him if “Canticel” was a sad song, and he said, “No. It’s a song about giving love.” “But…does it suggest the love wasn’t returned?” “No, no—that’s not the point. The point is to give the love. And that is enough.”
Albert should know. He, too, gives the love. And it is enough.