Steven Blier: 25th Anniversary Concert - A Body of Thought and a Festival of Song

Steven Blier has served as accompanist, arranger, and artistic director of song recitals at Wolf Trap for the past 25 years.  On Saturday and Sunday, Wolf Trap Opera celebrated this record with an anniversary concert.  Mr. Blier is also the Artistic Director of the New York Festival of Song, a Juilliard faculty member, and a Grammy award winner who has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including playing vocal recitals with Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming, Jessye Norman, and Samuel Ramey.  For my wife, I will add that he is also an English Literature major who graduated summa cum laude from Yale. 

As he walked us through the concert with background comments, he also displayed a keen sense of humor, remarking early on that he didn’t know how many songs he had programmed for Wolf Trap Opera over his 25 years, but it was somewhere around 713.  Each song selected for the concert meant something special to him and had survived fierce late-night battles within his psyche to be included, hundreds of Sophie’s choices.  He rode to the piano on an electric wheelchair and required assistance to be seated at the bench; he has FSH Muscular Dystrophy that limits his mobility, which he talked about.  His fellow player and co-arranger for the concert was Joseph Li, pianist and vocal coach, who has worked with WTO for several summers himself.  The piano duo were accompanied on percussion by Joe Connell; the stage direction was handled by Katherine Carter and the stage manager was Alycia Martin.  Soloists were current WTO Filene Artists mezzo-soprano Lindsey Kate Brown, tenor Ian Koziara, baritone Johnathan McCullough, and soprano Alexandria Shiner; they were joined by former WTO artists, tenor Frederick Ballentine, bass Matt Boehler, soprano Amy Owens, and mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen. 

For the singers, it was not the typical recital arrangement of singer by the piano on the stage and sing your song.  The Barns stage was not used. The center of the orchestra section on the floor of The Barns was cleared to create a performance area with seats in a U-shape around the performance area, which was capped by. two grand pianos sitting on the orchestra floor in front of the stage.  There was frequent movement in the performance area as soloists sometimes joined in ensemble pieces and sometimes served as supernumeraries for each other; there was even some dancing.  Hearing these singers live and that close is an experience, a thrilling experience.  It was also fun to hear them sing songs in genres outside of opera and their comfort zones.

What do you like: opera arias, art songs, jazz pieces, show tunes, songs for drag queens?  Mr. Blier’s concert had them all, nineteen by my count, in a program that reflected the eclecticism of his career, which he claimed had been more of a problem for him than being gay, a timely reflection given that it is Gay Pride Month.  For Mr. Blier, any combination of music and poetry has a chance with him, and certainly those he chose for Sunday’s performance worked for his audience.  My wife had accompanied me to the concert willingly, but for my sake, I think.  I enjoyed seeing her come alive and say as she left that it was a great concert; I even heard her cheering the performers a few times as they were getting applause. 

I will single out only a few, but I enjoyed all of the numbers, even the lieder, “Ich sehe wie in einem Spiegel (I see myself as if in a mirror)” by Richard Strauss, sung by Alexandria Shiner, maybe because it was sung by Ms. Shiner, who has the lead soprano role in WTO’s upcoming Ariadne auf Naxos.  Most of the numbers were prefaced with comments from Mr. Blier on their back story and their meaning for him.  I found out that Mr. Blier and I share a lack of passion for lieder; he humorously claimed he had been scarred by a lieder when he was still pursuing a singing career, but still admires their beauty and importance.  Lindsay Kate Brown sang the emotionally packed “Farruca” by Joaquín Turina, which includes a lover’s cry, “when I gaze into the mirror/ Instead of seeing myself I see you!”  Basses are usually the heavies in opera, so it was immensely fun to hear Matt Boehler sing “Bruce” by John Wallowitch, an ode to a cross dresser’s bad taste.  Annie Rosen showed a different side of herself, a cabaret flair, singing “Le Soleil et la lune (The Sun and the Moon)”.  As a preface to Amy Owen’s first number, Mr. Blier stated his love for showy coloratura arias, but it was her second act performance of Enrique Granados’ “Elegia eterna” that most adoringly showed the beauty of her voice.  Ian Koziara sang the ballad “The Rose Song” by Marc Blitzstein in a casual Sinatra style.  The showstopper of the afternoon might have been Frederick Ballentine singing Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So” in five-inch heels. 

A couple of the ensemble pieces deserve highlighting.  Johnathan McCullough with Lindsay Kate Brown, Ian Koziara, and Matt Boehler sang a funny and poignant doo wop piece called “Through the Wall” by Gunnar Madsen and Richard Greene, charting a young man’s love affair with a neighbor that he lacks the courage to meet.  The entire cast participated in closing numbers for each act.  To end Act 1, the troupe gave a boisterous rendition of a scene from Arizona Lady by Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán, played as it might have been if the American west had been populated by Germans imitating American settlers; it was a hoot!  All numbers were accompanied beautifully by Messrs. Blier, Li, and Connell.

Mr. Blier and Mr. Li also played piano numbers together to begin each act.  As I listened to them play Astor Piazzolla’s “Fuga y misterio” to open Act 2, I realized our current repertoire of good music is based on a body of thought, not just a body of work.  The melodies of this jazzy, freewheeling fugue were interwoven to the delight of the audience.  That work involved more than musical talent; it required intellectual analysis, and not just by the composer, but also by the people before him who worked out music theory and its applications to various genres.  To the musicians who read this comment and think, “Duh”, bear with me.  Music fans, like myself, think of scientists and philosophers as geniuses because of their depth of thought, not just their experimental and compositional talents.  I suspect many fans, like I have at times, think of musicians as talented people who can come up with a song out of thin air and write it down using their special language, and that may happen in some cases, but even then there is arranging and when to present.  I doubt musicians get the respect they deserve for the intellectual side of what they do because the effect of what they do involves mainly a feeling response.  Music also involves a body of thought, and Mr. Blier told us throughout the concert of the tremendous thought that went into selecting the songs and arranging this anniversary concert, all to our benefit. 

Mr. Blier chose to make the concert’s encore a personal moment and play a piece meaningful to and representative of him.  He said it was a difficult choice because he does not favor performing alone, but I doubt anyone disagreed that it was both befitting and a touching way to end this wonderful concert.  The Rob Schwimmer piece he selected is titled “Holding You in My Arms”.  Mr. Blier may have difficulty rising to hug you with his arms, but he has the power to embrace you with his music.

The Fan Experience: Going to The Barns to see performances is such a pleasure - easy in, easy out, food and drink available, ok to carry drinks to your seat without the special cup, casual attire, a cozy, intimate setting.  It helps make attending WTO performances a fun experience.

I like to point out on occasion that you can save significant dollars on fees by purchasing tickets at the box office instead of online; true for most venues.

I am impressed by WTO’s willingness to limit the size of their audience in order to achieve the staging used; this included blocking off the balcony.  I also like that the lyrics for each song, with English translations as needed, were included in the concert program; it was too dark to read them during the performances, perhaps on purpose, but I can now read and reflect upon them.  Finally, I note that it was a special treat to get to hear the previous Filene Artists once more.  I encourage WTO to do more of that.