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The Dating Game, in Song

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Over the course of two decades, the New York Festival of Song has cemented its reputation in the minds and hearts of concertgoers as a renowned and beloved presenter of songs of every stripe and variety. It’s no small wonder, either: After 125 concerts—that’s more than 3,000 songs!—you might say that Steven Blier, NYFOS’s artistic director, and Michael Barrett, associate artistic director, have a knack for the art of programming. A select group of Juilliard singers will be the beneficiaries of their expertise when NYFOS teams up with the School’s Department of Vocal Arts for its third annual collaboration in a program titled “A Modern Person’s Guide to Hooking Up and Breaking Up.”

Michael Barrett (left) and Steven Blier.

(Photo by Dario Acosta)

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For this year’s program, which will feature undergraduate and graduate singers, as well artists from the Juilliard Opera Center, Blier and Barrett decided to choose a theme that their cast of singers knows firsthand: dating in all of its guises. “We chose the subject for this year’s project because we thought it would be good for the young cast to sing about something very close to their experience: desire, attraction, the need to complete one’s self by finding a partner,” explained Blier recently. “Last year’s program, about war and peace, drew on a certain part of their emotions. But the battle of the sexes is a war they fight on a daily basis,” he added. Just because the subject matter may be familiar, Blier, who has been working with his group of singers since the start of the school year, admits that the topic is not an easy one. “It is a challenge for the students to put themselves on the line in this way,” he said, “to expose an active source of pleasure, conflict, and drama in their lives.”

The key component of the NYFOS-Juilliard collaboration requires the participating students to create and shape the program they will be performing, guided by Blier’s and Barrett’s 20 years’ worth of expertise. “The important factor is the workshop aspect of the program preparation,” said Elizabeth Hurwitt, NYFOS’s executive director, “which permits artists to suggest ideas for repertoire, [and] personalize their interpretations in ways that change the song’s affect. If the rehearsals are going as they should, the artists as a group truly own the program.”

The NYFOS audience has grown accustomed to the eclectic intermingling of disparate styles of song in a single program. Last year’s Juilliard concert, “Songs of Peace and War,” featured songs by (among others) Mussorgsky, Kurt Weill, and Bob Dylan. “Hooking Up and Breaking Up” should be no different. Says Blier, “We have a Bruce Springsteen song and a number from Cy Coleman and David Zippel’s City of Angels that really ignite one another. And there are more on the way! Stay tuned.”

Yet Blier, a longtime Juilliard faculty member, shies away from programming songs merely for the sake of inclusion. “We’re trying to get the students to go a little farther, and look for the sharpest, smartest lyrics, tied to music that brings those lyrics to blazing life. Sometimes a singer will realize, ‘Oh, maybe that song doesn’t really work … but it says something I want to say!’” he explained. “And then they get the assignment: go out and find 10 songs that say the same thing—only better.”

Hurwitt is quick to add, “Although, on paper, an ‘eclectic’ NYFOS program appears to have followed the grab-bag schema of thematic programming that is so common in the wider concert-making world, the best NYFOS concerts are different because they have a hidden ‘plot’—they are constructed with a dramatic arc. Working with Juilliard’s Vocal Arts Department for a third year, we are trying hard to share programming principles with students so that they will have a better understanding of the process.”

Given the collaborative effort involved in choosing songs for “Hooking Up and Breaking Up,” the program, at the time of this writing, is still a work in progress. “It is a terribly time-consuming process,” Hurwitt noted. “Asking students to turn their attention to creating a NYFOS program in the middle of a Juilliard term is a little like asking someone to write a play in the middle of playing second base in a World Series game.” Blier is not quite ready to unveil a final product (songs by Kenji Bunch, William Bolcom, Leonard Bernstein, and Frank Loesser are almost for sure), in case the students’ field work uncovers last-minute riches.

But whatever facets of the dating game “Hooking Up and Breaking Up” ends up exploring, Hurwitt is confident that Juilliard’s singers will come away with a new understanding of the potential of creative programming. “NYFOS artists tell us over and over again, ‘When I perform with NYFOS, I remember why I wanted to sing in the first place.’ This is because they are engaged at a higher level of expression, with a stake in what the performance ultimately means,” she said. “It’s a great experience that we’d like to make available to Juilliard’s singers not just through performance, but by teaching programming as an art.”

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