Steven Blier, Artistic Director of the Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars (VRS), shares his impressions in this annual blog series. VRS is a week-long mentoring intensive for aspiring vocalists at Caramoor.
So much drama. Friday we did a presentation for a bunch of high school choral singers. The kids didn’t seem too interested in Michael or me, but they were really into the singing, absolutely fascinated to hear full-throated, sophisticated vocalism close up. And we fielded a lot of great questions from them—as always, about four people had three questions each, but we accomplished the feat of having 40 high schoolers in the palm of our hands. This wasn’t “The Voice.” This was the real deal.
In the afternoon we welcomed Karen Holvik as our second guest-teacher of the week. Karen and I met at Aspen when we were in our 20s, and have had a long, long musical love-affair. She is now the head of the voice department at New England Conservatory, and has some of the sharpest eyes and ears and brain cells of anyone I know.
Friday’s runthrough was a little underwhelming. I’d started out a little hot under the collar about being relegated to the role of hired hand in the morning, but then I got quietly exercised about some real things. It seemed as if so much of the work Michael and I (and Giuseppe) had been doing all week was going out the window. The notes we gave were pretty much the same notes we’d given the day before, and the day before that. “It’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’” I mused. “You wake up and you start all over again from scratch.” In these moments I have a decision to make: do I get better results from being warmly supportive, or do I reveal my irritation, and if so, how? What will be effective? I decided to let Michael and Karen do most of the talking. My mouth has a way of running away with me. Anyway the singers can smell it when I am not happy, and it’s not a pleasant odor.
That night I had to be in town for a memorial tribute to two great opera singers who had recently died, Carlo Bergonzi and Licia Albanese. My friend Paul Gruber had masterminded and produced the event, and he did a magnificent job. I must have been tired and vulnerable, because I did a lot of crying that night. When Licia Albanese, age 81, sang “Never look back!” in the video of “One More Kiss” from Sondheim’s “Follies” with the young Erie Mills, I flashed on Chris Reynolds and me. The old diva, the young hotshot. I sobbed. In the second half, there were major waterworks every time they showed a Bergonzi video. Thank God I was sitting alone—Jim was a row in front of me, blissfully unaware that his husband was having a total emotional meltdown two feet away. After the show I thought, “Just get out of the theater and go home. If you can do that you’ll be OK.” Unfortunately I ran into my old friend, artist manager Ken Benson who cheerfully said, “Wasn’t that amazing?” and I let loose with the biggest display of weeping yet. “It’s like the funeral…of my art form!” I managed to blubber. “It’s all GONE!” I wailed. On the way to the 11 bus I managed to burst into tears only two more times. Finally Jim gently said, “Um, Stevie, can you try to stop crying? Because if you don’t I’ll start crying too.”
It didn’t help that Vittorio Grigolo, young tenor sensation, had been on hand to give a live vocal tribute to Bergonzi. He gave the most bizarre, tempo-less performance of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” which sounded like a Justin Bieber impersonation. He appeared to be singing in Esperanto, and addressed most of his burbling, bumbling song upstage to a still photo Bergonzi. Grigolo is a nice-looking man, slender (he wore really tight pants and maroon socks), and clearly into being a Personality. My takeaway: Bergonzi died and look what we’re left with, a weird narcissist with a papery voice.
Bergonzi and Albanese were doing what I had been asking my cast to do all week, and after Friday’s tentative run of the program I wondered if the whole tradition had died despite my best efforts. But this story has a happy ending. On Saturday Michael gave a strong pep-talk to the cast. He didn’t mince words, but he did tell them what he wanted them to do: man up, remember what we’d been working on, live up to their talent, take a risk. And by God they did. “Go too far if you need to, we can pull you back.” That happened only in a couple of songs. The dress rehearsal was thrilling. The singers—and pianist Chris Reynolds—knew that we were counting on them to sing with eloquence, dignity, passion, connection, and they let us know that (despite the evidence of superstar Grigolo) the future of vocal music was safe in their hands. They sang for keeps, and I arrived home a much happier man.
The Schwab Vocal Rising Stars concluded their week at Caramoor with a performance on Sunday, March 15.