“If Michael Barrett and I were to create our own musical Mount Rushmore, we would have to start with sixty-foot sculptures of Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom,” writes Steven Blier in his program note to A Bernstein/Bolcom Celebration, a New York Festival of Song program that takes place this week on Tuesday and Thursday at Merkin Concert Hall.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that Bernstein—whose 90th birthday would have been this October—is being feted in performances all across New York this fall. On Wednesday, Carnegie Hall welcomes the San Francisco Symphony in a gala all-Bernstein concert, to be telecast on PBS’s Great Performances on October 29. Meanwhile, NYFOS—as New York Festival Song is commonly known—is having a double birthday celebration by devoting a program to Bernstein and composer William Bolcom, who turned 70 in May. Though Blier contrasts Bernstein’s “extravagant, sweaty theatrics” with Bolcom’s “essence of cool,” both have been enormously important to Blier’s idea of what a song program should be.
Blier, NYFOS’s artistic director, has been creating inventive programs for more than 20 years now, together with associate artistic director Michael Barrett. The first program, on October 10, 1988 at the Greenwich House Music School, was entitled “Lyrics by Shakespeare” and featured soprano Brenda Harris, bass-baritone Braden Harris, narrator Blythe Danner, with Blier on piano; one of the rarities that night was Kabalevsky’s Shakespeare Sonnets sung in Russian. (Bernstein’s and Bolcom’s music appeared on the second-ever program, on October 23, 1988, along with music of Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, Virgil Thomson, and John Musto.)
I chatted with Blier this weekend about Bernstein and Bolcom—and NYFOS, a labor of love he terms his “Magnificent Obsession.”
SundayArts: The phrase that often comes up when describing New York Festival of Song is from a New Yorker review saying it “reinvented the song recital.” Twenty years ago, what was wrong with the song recital? Did it need reinventing?
Steven Blier: Well, I did feel that the song recital needed some help, because it was turning into a kind of a—there were several ways that it was staying alive, and none of them were particularly interesting to me.
One of them was the big diva recital; they were sort of like public appearances, and sometimes they could be quite wonderful, but it was more about the diva than about he song per se. There’s always a place for that, but it limits what I thought was really important, which was the words and the music. It was as much about the dress as it was about anything else: Did she change her dress? Is it right for her to change her dress? And really, I don’t care a hoot and a hell about her dress.
The other was the graduate recital, which was starting to become a close cousin of the young artist community concert type of recital, which was so closely related to what they had done to get out of graduate school. It was very patterned, and I just thought that songs are so interesting and I think people have a primal need to be sung to, but this was putting songs in the worst possible light, like some kind of duty. I think there were managers who liked song recitals, but they would say that it’s just for the very few. I thought, why do you think that? I mean, songs are three minutes long. If you don’t like it, there’ll be another one! Wagner I think is for the very few—it gives you bedsores going to Wagner!
SundayArts: So how exactly did you come up with the idea for NYFOS?
Steven Blier: The idea for NYFOS came to me in 1985, three years before it actually happened. I was in Israel with Martha Schlamme and Alvin Epstein during the Kurt Weill cabaret, and I saw the Songmakers’ Almanac, which was one of Graham Johnson’s programs. They were very much European style, thematic programs … Schubert and Schumann and Wolf. I saw two programs of his, and while the singers were not very good, the programs were incredible, just so startling. And I thought, that’s what it ought to be, where you hear a song, and it just opens up a world to you. And he did it by speaking from the stage; he had a reader and an actor there who read.
Songs are a larger cultural envoy, not song as graduate exam (“Does this person do it like my record, because my record is the way it goes? And I have Souzay doing it, and is it as good as Souzay?”) And I just thought, that is crap. And so I took that memory home of these kind of vital collages of song. Then in 1988 the Greenwich House Music School, which had a tiny little hall, wanted people to come to their school. Michael was asked if he wanted to give a couple of recitals there, and Michael called me, and we did a couple of solo recitals in May 1988. And those recitals went so nicely that we were asked if we’d like to do some more. And I said, “Yes, but not solo recitals. What I’d like to do is this—these kind of thematic evenings.”
We planned out a season; we had $1,000 from Joe Machlis [author of The Enjoyment of Music]. He said, “Do something interesting,” and so we did. I think that money paid for some of our fliers. We put in some money ourselves, and we made a flier. The graphic designer we used was the one who named it the New York Festival of Song—we didn’t know what to call it. He named it. And it was very startling to people to come to something and to kind of walk around the subject, and when they would leave, they would really feel like they had been given something more stimulating.
There are all kinds of funny stories from that era. A woman who came backstage at the first concert said, “Oh, I’d love to see this whole concert again!” I said, well, in two weeks we are doing a whole program about America, covering the whole country from coast to coast: beautiful songs, great poems. And she said, “No. I want to hear this program again.” And she turned around and left. [Laughs] And I thought, well, that’s New York for you. To go from, “Oh, I’d love to hear this again” to “I only want to hear this again”! So we’ve been building on this for 20, 21 years now.
SundayArts: Clearly commissions have been a big part of the process right from the start.
Steven Blier: Yes, and premieres—we’ve done a lot of first performances.
SundayArts: Do programs with new commissions and premieres require a huge amount of lead time for you?
Steven Blier: Oh, absolutely. We plan a lot of time around it to rehearse it properly, and to work out the kinks. We’ve learned this gradually, that you can’t go into a rehearsal for a bunch of premieres without really twice the amount of time. Another thing you do around premieres is to do a revival of an old program right before it, so at least you don’t spend all your time typing up and translating and writing a program; those programs are a lot of work, and if you’ve got it mostly done that helps. I mean, I’ve never actually republished a program note verbatim; I’ll look at it and go, “Oh my God, I can write something much better than that, I’ve got to fix it for this concert.” But it’s better to have something to work from, to edit.
SundayArts: You mentioned that the program you heard in Israel was a life-changing experience for you—but that even though the programming was great, the singers were not so much so. Has that always been your aim, to present the best singers at the top of their game, here in New York? Has the level of performers changed over the years as you’ve become better known?
Steven Blier: Yes, I think it has, as we’ve become better known. I used to be very shy. I didn’t have big fees to offer, so I didn’t even think of asking certain people to appear with us on the bill. And their managers weren’t always very nice about it, either. One of them refers to our fees as “What is the honorarium for this concert?” Very condescending. But the truth is, that whoever we ask I think has to know what NYFOS is: how much fun it can be, and how enriching it will be for them, how special it will be for them, unlike anything else they will do all year. I can’t go to someone I don’t know who is very famous but who probably doesn’t know me … they just won’t know. They’ll think, it’s just some low-fee gig, I don’t do that.
But I’ve gotten Susan Graham, Stephanie Blythe … great, great people. Stephanie has been fabulous about this. She has done some terrific work—I mean, it’s hard to say with Stephanie, because everything she does is so fantastic! She has been in some unusual things, she has learned great songs that she then builds on and uses in other programs, and with NYFOS she knows that she will be well cared for, so it will be worth it. I think what we’re really trying to do is to slot people when it’s very very clear that it’s going to be a big talent, though how far it’s going to go, you’ll never know. But look at Dina Kuznetsova. She’s doing so much now around the world, and doing so beautifully, and I have had her for something like six seasons in a row. And I love working with Dina. She said to me, there are many gigs that I have to do, but NYFOS is a time of the year when I still feel like a creative artist, this is my time to actually create something. And she is just amazing to work with. And other people that sing with us that maybe don’t have such as high level of creativity, sometimes they do their most amazing work with us. Anton Belov was fantastic in that Russian program we did last year. He was so startling, and I knew he would be.
SundayArts: Mostly you perform in smaller spaces. How important is it for you to be in a smaller space?
Steven Blier: I think it’s nice to be in a space that’s not cavernous, so you can give an intimate performance that makes it not so difficult to transfer from my living room to a concert hall. Our biggest regular stage is the Juilliard theater, almost 1,000 seats, which is for our annual Juilliard concert. And I’ve kind of gotten used to making that transition and I’ve tried to prepare the cast for it, to go from the exquisite to the slightly more presentational. We did also a program down at the Jazz at Lincoln Center, at the Rose Theater, that went over like gangbusters. I like having some concerts in a big space, because there are more people, and it can be very exciting. I’m very glad we are moving back to Merkin, by the way. It’s a nice acoustic, and a slightly bigger stage.
SundayArts: For songs in English, do you print the words in the program?
Steven Blier: Yes.
Sunday Arts: In a smaller space, the audience ought to be able to hear every word—I suppose the words are printed so people can remember after they go home. At least I hope so, rather than doing what people sometimes do, to stare down at the program during the concert itself.
Steven Blier: Well, I have on occasion said to the audience, “I know we’ve given you the words, and I’m sure you will want to have a look at them when you are taking a nice warm bath…. But if you’re one of those people who needs to read the lyrics, I’d rather you read that than reading Moby Dick.” You know, when you’re playing comedy … we once did a P.G. Wodehouse show, mainly songs by Kern, but not only. These are songs with so much fabulous physical comedy, and I looked down at Row B, and there was a guy who was reading and couldn’t be bothered to look up.
SundayArts: So for this week’s Bernstein/Bolcom program, out of all the songs that you could have picked, how on earth do you go through and choose?
Steven Blier: It was hard. First of all, I thought about who I had to cast. In the case of Bolcom, it was this. I wanted to showcase him as an artsong composer, as an opera composer, as a music theater composer, and as a cabaret song composer. And then I wanted to give him the opportunity at the end with Joan [Morris, Bolcom's wife] where they could do their thing. And they are doing two songs by Bill, and another one not by Bill. And I thought, I’ve got 25 minutes to honor this man who is so dear to me, so important to me … McTeague hasn’t been done in New York. Out of all his operas, I think has the best—I don’t know if it’s the best of his operas, but it has the best arias, that is for sure. So I thought we should do McTeague.
The other thing I decided was not to try to program all the Bernstein/Bolcom stuff that has never been done in New York before, because you’ll just end up with some weird-ass program. Just do it right. Of [Bolcom's] cabaret songs, “Blue” is my favorite of all; I love the progression of “Waitin” and “Blue,” because I know Arnold Weinstein [a longtime Bolcom collaborator] and I know the story that’s in those songs: Arnold before the ashram, Arnold after the ashram. This ashram saved his life, and I was at the ashram with him in the late 1970s, on 86th Street, and I know that that’s what those songs are. I find them very touching for that reason. And so on and so on.
For Bernstein, I’m a big fan of Songfest, which is so good. From Broadway I chose Wonderful Town. There was no question, I was not going to do West Side Story. And there’s “Dream With Me,” written for Peter Pan….
I’ve tried to make this program into—it’s so funny about choosing a song. You just sort of warm up to it, and it’s your song. That song we’re starting with, “If You Can’t Eat” [from Songfest]—if you can’t sing, you’ve got to die: I just loved that, and that’s how I wanted to start this concert, with the idea that you must sing. The earthly song, and the perfect angel song … I thought that was something integral to Lenny. “Dream With Me” was cut from Peter Pan, but it is a really beautiful song. And then the next song, “The Love of My Life,” from Arias and Barcarolles, which is about love that isn’t quite consummated, except it is so erotic. It’s like early Lenny romance, and late Lenny on the couch ruminating almost inarticulately about what happened to his love life.
SundayArts: There’s a lot of humor in your programs, and that’s also been part of Bolcom and Morris’s evenings of vaudeville songs, which they’ve been doing together for decades.
Steven Blier: In 1978, they did a program of Civil War-era stuff—at least 100 years of song—that was a life-changing experience for me, the very beginning of the idea of NYFOS for me. Ten years later it actually happened. That night, I thought, “That’s what songs are supposed to do.” … It was unusual at the time for an unamplified piano and voice team to be doing that kind of material in concert spaces. I don’t think that Joan much liked being in cabarets, and I can understand that, because I didn’t like it either. It’s not a realistic place, a cabaret setting. People are eating and drinking, and you can easily be background. If you’re a jazz singer, you don’t mind, but if you’re trying to tell a story, it’s horrible.
My goal—what I want to give people with NYFOS—is complex and rich and available. I want people to have something that really informs them and takes them somewhere new, but takes them somewhere, and gives them a sense of really having been taken on a generous journey. And I thought at that first concert I heard with Joan and Bill, back in 1978, “Oh, that’s what a concert is supposed to do.” I was so tired by things happening like a recital I played in Canada, where an old dowager would come up to me and say, “I judge all sopranos by how they sing the ‘Air de Lia.’ Patricia Wells sang it pretty well, and that’s how I judge people.’ And I thought, ‘You come to a recital to judge?” Ick! That’s just not a reason to go to something… I found the whole thing utterly horrifying.
Photos: (top) Michael Barrett, left, and Stephen Blier, right. Photo by Dario Acosta. (middle) Seated, left to right: Michael Barrett, Leonard Bernstein. Standing, left to right: William Sharp, Judy Kaye, Steven Blier. Photo taken in 1989 by Peter Schaaf. (bottom) Joan Morris, left, and William Bolcom, right. Photo by Katrin Conline.