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.

The Grecian Formula

December 11, 2009

Two nights in a row I sat in a darkened room and watched, and especially heard, great stories of enduring power brought to life as vivid as that of the most dramatic current headlines. More so, actually, since the only reason we’re still rehearsing these millennia-old plots is because they are so dead-on. Savvy opera composers have long known that a sure-fire libretto can emerge from these stories. Stories that have long since proved their universal applicability will find a target in virtually every human heart.

So it was on Wednesday evening at the Manhattan School of Music and on Thursday evening at the Metropolitan Opera House.

I remember once in my youth having made some ill-considered, boiler-plate remark about music as a universal language, only to be told that, for disproof of that idea one need look no further than the reputations of Reger in Germany and of Fauré in France, where they occupy a status reserved for Bach in the United States. While, at this date, Fauré’s passport gets a good deal more use than Reger’s does, he owes his mobility mostly to the songs and above all to the early and atypical Requiem. His late and mature opera Pénélope is not much heard in comparison, and it was good to encounter it in fine shape at the MSM. This will never be a wildly popular piece, and Fauré must have known that he was composing a kind of twentieth-century musica reservata. But for those who can do without a lot of action and can bask in the sublime for a couple of hours, this is an opera to treasure. There are to be two more performances of this production, and I recommend it to all who are within reach of it.

Of course one reason that the story of Faithful Penelope, as my first-year Latin textbook always called her, is so rewarding is because an expectation is relentlessly built up, meditated upon, made the hearer’s own, and then rewarded. It is not just the expectation that Penelope will be reunited with her Ulysses, for we’ve known all evening that that event was already set up with the arrival of the disguised king. Whether we allow ourselves to realize it fully or not, what we are really waiting for, as we admire the heroine’s constancy and bathe in Fauré’s chaste opulence, is the slaughter of those annoying anti-Ulysses suitors. This is the real climax of the action, and the inevitable love-duet afterwards is, in plot terms, a victory lap just as much as the final “Lets be merry” chorus of Figaro is.

In Strauss’s Elektra, while the return of the wandering Orestes is longed for, what we really are building up to is the violent murder of the mother and her guilty spouse. We are asked to join Elektra in the most nakedly bloodthirsty suspense. And just as the music of Fauré leads us into a female mind of the utmost refinement and gentleness, that of Strauss invites us to the most primitive kind of vengeful rage and unmitigated hate. The Met’s first presentation of its current revival of the work was pretty overwhelming — largely due to the orchestral playing and the magisterial Klytemnestra of Felicity Palmer.

Clytemnestra is of course the reverse-image of Penelope: she’s the unfaithful wife upon whom revenge must be taken by her children. Oh, dear. These Greeks really did know how to lead us into subjects and psychological situations we’d rather avoid, didn’t they?

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