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: Pianist Yihao Zhou, who has kept this somewhat unwieldy project on track (bless him); Two extremely cool people: Joseph Parrish, with Caramoor’s President and CEO Ed Lewis in the background; Shelén Hughes, as captures by Vermeer/Steve’s iPhone]
Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. Bénédicte and I rolled in with a schedule for the day—three songs we wanted to revisit before lunch, and the ever-elusive first run-through in the afternoon. No sooner had we gotten through the glass doors of the Music Room than we were greeted by Colin, our tenor soloist, looking mighty peaky around the gills. “I’m not doing great,” he croaked. “I really can’t talk.” He started to go into greater detail, but we interrupted him. “Go and drink some tea, get some cold medicine, rest, sleep, and stay in bed.” “I think I’ll be fine if I can just—“ he started to add, before we said, “Colin, of course you’re going to be OK. But for now, get some rest. Go!”
In the past this might have thrown me into a panic. But after a half-century of concerts I have developed a kind of “Safe Mode,” an inner tranquilizer that slows time and alleviates stress. In this state I had some excellent rehearsals of the numbers that needed attention. Chief among them was my piano duet with Joseph, “Night in Tunisia.” I am so used to being a jazz piano student these days that it took me some time to understand that I actually needed to be the teacher and take charge of our improv. From my pleasantly spaced-out perch, I realized it was first of all a question of organization. “OK, you play the tune here, I’ll accompany you. I then cover this connecting passage”—[twelve bars I actually hate to play, but I thought I’d take one for the team]—“then we’ll trade, you play, I’ll answer, you play, we’ll both answer, four bars at a time. Then you play the tune in the bridge, I’ll dance above you. And we’ll do rapid trade-offs in the last eight bars.”
Almost all of this came to pass, though there were some spots where the devil got into each of us. But for the most part Joseph and I settled into the groove and interlocked our musical impulses. As the piece started to calm down, I realized that we were creating a sexy little tone poem together. And we were doing the tune in a slightly slower tempo, which took a lot of the stress out of the equation.
I can’t work in an abstract way at the piano, and in any case I don’t have the jazz technique to run all over the keyboard spewing a dazzling array of filigree. I need a story, an idea, a color, and as usual it emerged from the lyrics to the song. “Joseph, do you see what we’re doing? We’re painting a picture of Tunisia at night. Not the real Tunisia, where you could get your throat slit and your wallet stolen. No, an idealized Tunisia, an exotic, romantic place where everyone is beautiful and available, and drinks are on the house.” (NB: I’m paraphrasing what I actually said in order to keep my G-rating on this blog.) “Let’s not jab at the piano, let’s caress it. Let’s make a night full of stars and perfumed women.” (Again, paraphrasing.)
It worked. And when we came back to the piece in the afternoon, the magic was still there.
Over lunch Bénédicte and I made a plan B (the show without Colin at all) and plan C (the show with a couple of songs Colin might be able to sing by Sunday, cutting the heavy-duty numbers). One piece we chose as a replacement for our Ponchielli trio was “Chi il bel sogno” from Puccini’s “La rondine,” which Shelén offered. She and I gave it a run and it was pretty ravishing. “Oh wow, I haven’t touched that aria in years,” she murmured as I played the postlude. As last-minute substitutions go, you could do a lot worse.
I also took a little quiet time with pianist Yihao Zhou. He was a little jumbled up after our session with Albert, who seemed to be giving him contradictory advice to what I had been saying. Yihao is a very sensitive pianist, eager to learn, adept at taking instruction. I could see why he felt he was being pulled in two different directions, and let’s be practical: Albert is gone, I am still here…so how should he play his Granados song? If he does it Albert’s way, will I be mad?
I tried to show him that they could be combined: the rhythmic vitality Albert asked for, and the sinuous grace I want, are able to coexist. The trick is to keep the short notes—the staccato bass line—dry, while sighing a bit in the right hand. The operative words here are “a bit.” “The problem is this,” I explained. “Sometimes I push you too hard, exaggerate the things I want you to try, in order to jostle you into a more colorful sound. I overdo it to illustrate, to take you somewhere new, and naturally you imitate it verbatim.” “So…let me get this straight: I just need to do what I was doing, but less?” “Yes…with those staccato bass notes…” He nailed it.
We ran everything we could, and all the songs were in excellent shape. It was not the most comfortable Friday I’ve ever spent at Caramoor, but I was grateful to have some quality time with everyone, especially those crucial discussions with Joseph and Yihao.
When I got home, I received an email from Colin saying that he was feeling a lot better and thought he’d be at full strength for dress rehearsal and the show. I think I might bring my rhinestone muzzle to keep him from using up all his vocal resources tomorrow—Colin is irrepressible. But he won’t be able to resist the rhinestones, right?