If you don’t mind navigating the rather nasty-looking Lincoln Center construction site, you can now get into the Juilliard School‘s newly renovated interior. It reopened within the last few weeks, looking very spiffy indeed, even if the outside street scene features the music of street drills and is overlooked by a giant crane. Of course, for a documented cheapie like myself, an added appeal is the school’s many low-cost and free events.
This week I attended one of these events, an afternoon master class on November 6 with James Conlon, who went through two scenes from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and a scene from Verdi’s Falstaff with singers Paul Appleby, Jessica Klein, Paul LaRosa, Nicholas Pellesen, Renée Tatum, and Frédérique Vézina, with pianist/Juilliard associate coach Ho-Jeong Jeong. At the class, in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in the newly reopened part of Juilliard, Conlon demonstrated why conductors in general have the most illuminating perspective on music, and why he in particular is so good at working with young people.
Though Conlon warned that part of the master class might resemble a session with a dentist’s drill, this was not at all like Terrence McNally’s play Master Class. Conlon is exacting in his advice, but he frames it all gently and with jokes (“Ahime means oy vey in Italian”; “There are lots of ways to sing piano, most of them bad”; “I’m going to have the singer demonstrate this phrase two ways, and you, the audience, get to vote on one which you like better: we’re all so disappointed that it’s Thursday, and we have nothing to vote for”). If you had been in attendance at Conlon’s master class, some of the stuff you would have learned for FREE included the explanation that singing softer isn’t all about decibels, it’s also an illusion that can be created by thinking a dimuendo. Other things you could learn in two hours with Conlon: the difference between the pronunciation of double consonants and single consonants in Italian, how not to “smash” Italian consonants the way we do in English, how to sing a recitative neither too fast nor too slow, to have the courage to sing it slowly enough to find the necessary character. The singers and pianist stopped and started frequently, rehearsing specific points, and sometimes Conlon stopped the music altogether and had the pianist demonstrate certain musical points as if the audience was part of a music history class—he seemed to particularly enjoy all of Falstaff‘s embedded references to previous Verdi works like Trovatore and the Requiem.
The other thing one is reminded of at master classes like this is how much work it is for a singer to get from one level to the next—these singers were all already singing at a very advanced level, after all. But fortunately for New Yorkers who are paying attention, these and other developing musicians can be heard around the city, if you just know where to look. And with a four-year education at many universities now at or approaching $200,000, it’s great to really learn something at no charge.