Summering at Caramoor

July 5, 2011

With the Fourth of July now in our rear-view mirror, there’s no denying that we are in high summer. Some of us go off to cool, bucolic spots; some of us slog away at our pursuits in the city heat; but some of us who stay in the city are unwilling to renounce the pastoral pleasures that can be more accessible than many suspect.

I’m thinking here of what is officially called Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, but I think of it as a kind of temporary paradise. I’d be glad to be there even without the sensational programming that they do. Though there’s a style of music for any of myriad tastes at Caramoor, I go for the outstanding classical concerts and the important presentations of operas that are otherwise hard to find in live performance. Such a show is coming up twice in the next two weeks, when Rossini’s masterpiece William Tell is being given a rare outing. It’s a huge work, and that’s why performing outfits rarely have the wherewithal to put it on. And this is one of the things that I love about these concert performances: because they dispense with the expense — and, for me at least, the distraction — of all the stage machinery, one’s own imagination allows them to be more dramatically effective than most stagecraft is likely to make them, and they are certainly freer to concentrate on the drama that is in musical values.

People who live up in Westchester County or nearby Connecticut of course have the advantage of proximity, but I don’t envy them that, since I have the advantage of escape to a radically different place for an evening — or even for a longer time, since the afternoon provides a bounty of enriching preparatory events arranged by the obliging Caramoor folks.

For details of the William Tell performances, including the handy and comfortable “Caramoor Caravan” that leaves from Grand Central Station, check out this link.

And a final thought: while you may be lucky enough to go on one of those perfect summer nights when it is warm-but-not-too-warm, there is also a certain wonderful comradery when rain is falling around the tent or when it is so sweltering as to be almost funny. But the first time I encountered the latter state, I was in tie and jacket. I do not recommend this. The next week I went as though dressed for a picnic (as I had observed more savvy visitors doing), and enjoyed the whole event in great comfort and good humor.

The Sunken Garden on the Caramoor estate in Katona, New York

When I couldn’t go to the first performance of Norma at Caramoor, my intention to go to the next one was intensified by the rave reviews it garnered. So, on Friday afternoon, I hopped the “Caramoor Caravan” outside Grand Central Station (three big buses) and got to that heavenly spot in time for Andrew Porter’s predictably satisfying pre-show lecture.

The performance was as the reviews promised, or somewhat better. Not only is Angela Meade the real thing, but Keri Alkema’s Aldagisa was, in its own way, just as remarkable and more than fulfilled the promise of her well-received Donna Anna in last fall’s hit Don Giovanni at the New York City Opera. These young women were not the only virtues — the Orchestra of St. Luke’s sounded rich in the surprisingly fine acoustics of the Venetian Theater — but the well-matched pair are what people will talk about most. The invaluable Will Crutchfield’s next offering in the “Bel Canto at Caramoor” project is already coming next Saturday, and I understand that there are still some tickets. It’s a rare chance to hear Donizetti’s late opera Maria di Rohan.

There were plenty of good reasons to go back up (this time via Metro North, since the Caravan runs only for operas) on Sunday for the Schumann-Chopin celebration, but I admit that the main draw for me was Sasha Cooke. Ever since I first encountered her remarkable art, she has had no rivals in my expectations of the next superstar mezzo-soprano. The last time I heard her was last January in the annual Marilyn Horne festivities at Carnegie Hall. She and her new husband Kelly Markgraf (the Masetto in that same NYCO Don Giovanni) had given an unforgettable duo recital then. While these two are wonderful individual artists, I do hope they will continue to give us such evenings as that one; but yesterday offered Sasha Cooke’s solo majesty in Schumann’s evergreen Frauenliebe und Leben with the eloquent pianist Michael Barrett. Anybody who was in the rapturous audience will tell you that they gave us an experience of that cycle that won’t be forgotten.

But the concert had another memorable highlight as well: the rarely-played Schumann Andante and Variations for Two Pianos, Two Cellos, and Horn was a revelation, even to a big Schumann fan. It of course didn’t hurt to have virtuosos of the level of hornist Stewart Rose, cellists Edward Arron and Alexis Pia Gerlach, and pianists Ken Noda and Michael Barrett. If you don’t know the work, get a recording. But even then you may miss the enchanting spacial effects that Schumann achieves in the subtle interplay of instruments. And there was that memorable phrase in which the first cello and the horn play in a perfect unison that produced a sound I’ve never heard before and yearn to hear again.

The secret of Caramoor’s charm is too multilayered even to attempt an analysis here. But it occurred to me yesterday that the musical personnel were of a quite unusual character. Everyone on that stage was doing something that they do very, very well. But they are all people who do many other things in our musical life and are thus well-rounded in a way that not all concert artists can be. Barrett, Arron, and Noda are well known as administrators and curators of musical series and events at the pinnacle of our musical life without in any way diminishing their primary means of communication: the music itself. Sasha Cooke, despite being such a dazzling recitalist, has already proved herself internationally as a dramatic star of the opera stage. Stewart Rose pops up everywhere from the Philharmonic or Met orchestras to a Paul Simon recording or the David Letterman show. That one of these is the Chief Executive and General Director of Caramoor itself is doubtless one of the reasons that the musical experience there is so rich.

I’m sure that I was far from alone among readers of The New York Times on March 4. When I read the article “At Caramoor, a Focus on Songs of the Belle Époque,” I thought: “Now that’s something I’d like to know more about.” Imagine my delight, then, when I heard from Michael Barrett, Executive Director of the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts, inviting me to come up to the fabulous estate — for once, the over-used fabulous is precisely the mot juste — in Katonah, New York, for a day of observation and informal interaction with the participants who had already spent a week living, learning, cooking, debating, and making music together.

It would be hard to imagine a project more perfect of its kind. Steven Blier, Artistic Director of the two-decade-old New York Festival of Song, of which he is a co-founder with Mr. Barrett, is in his second year of running for Caramoor this ten-day “spring break” concentration of minds and voices on a compelling subject that varies by the year. This year it was the French art song — or mélodie, as they say — that fell under their study, scrutiny … just what is the right word? As I watched Blier and Barrett and the four young singers at work, I must say that images of both the dining room and the kitchen kept coming before me. They were falling upon this material with an appetite that was certainly sometimes ravenous, but also full of the more refined approach of the epicure and a Julia Childlike preoccupation with the original creation of the poetry and music and, now, its re-creation.

Seeing the singers in a conference with their two mentors was a lesson in cooperative interaction, but it was when they entered upon a run-through of the actual concert-to-be that I got to the meat of what had been going on here. The first singer to come out interpreted the theme song for the week, Fauré’s “Le Plus Doux Chemin (The Sweetest Path).” The baritone John Brancy was something of a known quantity, since I see him around musical events quite often and had heard him — first when he was a high schooler, appearing on the PBS show From the Top. His rich, perfect vocal production and entirely professional stage presentation made it difficult to believe that he is just 21 and is still an undergraduate at the Juilliard School.

Then came Matthew Peña, a tenor who was new to me. The moment he began to sing, however, a magnetism that was the essence of the song he sang seemed to take over everything about him. He is somewhat more experienced, since he already has two degrees from Oberlin and one from the Manhattan School of Music, but it was his first interaction with this NYFOS crowd — I almost said cult — and it was clear that he was going to fit right in.

He was then joined for a serene but passionate love-duet by Charlotte Dobbs, a soprano who, like her tenor partner has already been through a liberal-arts education (at Yale) and is a graduate student at the Curtis Institute. But, unlike him, she also has done time with Steven Blier at Juilliard . Her demure interaction with the more extrovert Peña in this song did not quite prepare me for some of what was to come from her later, especially in the sensuous Ravel “Vocalise en forme de habanera.”

When Rebecca Jo Loeb bounced out on to the stage, it was not surprising that she was going to sing about an amorous elf. Though this mezzo-soprano projected a much more serious affect later in this varied program, she does excel at the songs that allow her to communicate in a mischievous manner with the audience. But I thought it spoke well of her that her high point came with a song in the grand tradition by the great mezzo Pauline Viardot. Since she brings with her an education at the University of Michigan, the Manhattan School, and Juilliard, we were seeing interaction of four bright young talents with a nice mixture of backgrounds.

In addition to the well-known expertise of Blier and Barrett, the group had had input the day before my visit from the French opera star and singer of song Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who is in the country for the opening of the New York City Opera spring season, in which he portrays the male lead in Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Etoile. Since, in this program, we were never far from some song by Chabrier — a particular favorite of Steven Blier — Fouchécourt must have seemed like a Gallic prophet to these singers, some of whom were encountering large doses of French poetry and music for the first time. Indeed, he said he found them to be veritable sponges.

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt

This kind of avid absorption must be very gratifying to all the devisers of this ambitious mentoring project. Indeed, I had a chance to hear of her own satisfaction from Eileen Schwab, whose idea the mentoring program in vocal song was. Through the support of the Terrance W. Schwab Fund for Young Vocal Artists, the program grew out of Caramoor’s other mentoring programs, for instrumentalists and opera singers. This seems very important, since mentoring is one of the greatest needs in the musical art — not to mention in all of society — if skills learned in studio and classroom, and drilled in the practice room, are to take flight in the real world. But Mrs. Schwab’s enthusiasm was not just because of the process. I was hearing from her after the culminating New York concert in the Merkin Concert Hall. It was the result of all that work that inspired a rapt audience to ovation after ovation for a particularly meaty survey of French mélodie, from Gounod to Poulenc — with not a longeur all evening.

So is it the process or the result that is the point? I’d say we really don’t need to choose, since the concert that thrilled audiences in both Caramoor and New York treated the public to a valuable finished product; but, with these extraordinary young singers, we have not even begun to see the good things that will flow from their experience at Caramoor. And Steven Blier and Michael Barrett have plenty more up their commodious sleeves, as well.