Originally Published by The New York Times
By Phillip Lutz
70 years on, restoring a music room’s grandeur at Caramoor Center for Music in Katonah, N.Y.
On Feb. 16, 1946, about 60 people witnessed the first concert with tickets at what would become the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah. They did so in comfort befitting the ornate setting, seated in plush velvet chairs facing the stage in the grandly appointed music room of the treasure-filled home now known as the Rosen House.
Last month, exactly 70 years and a day after that concert, the music room appeared slightly less grand. Precious art had been removed for safekeeping or to be sold. Seating risers that were in place for years had been stored. And while velvet chairs remained, many of them were rickety; 15 were said to date to the first concert.
But some of that grandeur will soon return. In the coming weeks, 200 new chairs will arrive, with the first batch of 140 arriving just in time for a show on March 13, “At Home,” the eighth annual installment in the Schwab Vocal Rising Stars series. The series will put the chairs to good use: For the first time, the show will be performed in the round, with the audience partially surrounding the performers, heralding a new era of greater flexibility in Caramoor’s presentations.
“This opens a lot of doors for them, and for us it’s going to be great,” said Michael Barrett, the associate artistic director of the New York Festival of Song, which has collaborated with Caramoor on the series since it began. Mr. Barrett was the chief executive and general director of Caramoor from 2003 to 2012.
At a lunch recently with Mr. Barrett at a Manhattan restaurant, Steven Blier, the artistic director of both the vocal rising stars and the festival of song, said he became hooked on working in the round in summer 2013, when, at one of his productions at Wolf Trap, a singer played the angles and connected with the audience in a way she couldn’t from a proscenium.
“I just thought, I never want to just stand and face the public again,” he said. “This is so much better.”
Another program Mr. Blier produced at Wolf Trap, one highlighting different rooms of a house, seemed ideal for introducing the format to Caramoor. For “At Home,” the audience will sit on three sides in the center of the 3,200-square-foot music room floor, said Alison Moritz, the show’s director. She said the performers would use a 16-by-16 foot area as their center playing space and three aisles to move in and out of the space.
Beyond the music, she said, natural and theatrical lighting that plays on the music room’s nooks and crannies will help set the scenes, as will props and Mr. Blier’s comments punctuating the action as it moves between the scenario’s “rooms.”
“I think of it like we’re having a great party, and it’s at Steven Blier’s house and he is the one giving us the grand tour,” she said.
In 18 songs, Mr. Blier, an acclaimed vocal coach at the Juilliard School, lets politically incorrect humor fly. The “parlor,” where the show begins, is defined in part by the mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis’s rendering of “Cigarette,” an English music hall ode to smoking that Mr. Blier said he had wanted to program for 40 years.
The “kitchen” serves up songs like Leonard Bernstein’s “Tavouk Guenksis,” which finds the baritone Justin Austin wearing a chef’s hat and wielding a big knife. Next up, the players descend babylike to the floor in the “nursery,” where the soprano Liv Redpath sings Darius Milhaud’s “Tais-toi, babillarde.”
The players, who also include the tenor Galeano Salas, then move to the “dressing room,” where they take narcissistic turns before a mirror in the 1923 novelty number “I Love Me.”
For the finale, in the “bedroom,” the songs build to “Sleep,” set to a meditative 16th-century poem. The comic tone returns in the encore, which Mr. Blier, fearful of spoiling the fun, didn’t want to discuss, save for revealing its location: the “bathroom.”
The show diverges from the Wolf Trap version in that the players are different and fewer in number (four, instead of five), which changes the dynamic considerably. Nonetheless, the show will inform the Caramoor team as it assesses how to use the music room going forward.
Jeffrey Haydon, Caramoor’s chief executive officer, said performances in the round could create greater intimacy for jazz and roots programming, while cabaret performances could benefit from the ambience created by tables.
But the pace of such changes depends partly on the construction of an elevator, which would make it easier to move chairs and risers in and out of storage. It is part of renovations underway in stages, at a cost of more than $1 million. Mr. Haydon said he hoped to start offering reconfigured presentations by spring 2017.
Contemplating the possibilities, Mr. Haydon settled into one of two new chairs that had been delivered in advance of the full order. A burgundy-velvet model with arms of maple and a mahogany finish, it was one of 60 pieces intended for V.I.P.s. That called to mind the 1946 concert, whose players were the estate’s owners, Walter Rosen, a financier and pianist, and his wife, Lucie Rosen, an early exponent of the exotic electronic instrument known as the theremin.
Ms. Rosen’s theremin, commissioned in 1938, still sits on the stage, just one of the Rosen House treasures. They range from ancient Greek vases to a bust of Mr. Rosen, who died in 1951, by the renowned sculptor Malvina Hoffman. The bust overlooks the music room, reminding people of a legacy that Mr. Haydon said must be respected as the changes proceed.
“We’re purposely trying to phase in the changes so we can understand all the different uses and how they work,” he said. “We’re being very careful about not getting too aggressive.”
New York Festival of Song in collaboration with Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts presents “At Home,” at 4 p.m. on March 13, 149 Girdle Ridge Road, Katonah. Tickets: $15 to $35. Information: caramoor.org or 914-232-1252.
A version of this article appears in print on March 6, 2016, on page WE9 of the New York edition with the headline: Restoring Grandeur at a Historic Music Room.
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