Born in Manhattan and raised in Riverdale, at the southern tip of the Bronx, Steven Blier always secretly knew he wanted to make music for a living, but says he didn’t get a lot of encouragement when he was young. “My father assumed I would be a doctor or a lawyer (the professions every Jewish boy was supposed to embrace); he then got this idea I’d be an acoustician (!) because I had a good ear,” Blier told The Journal. But Blier, who earned his B.A. from Yale, where he majored in English literature, prevailed. He has carved out a career as an accompanist that has included recitals with singers ranging from Renée Fleming and Susan Graham to Samuel Ramey and Cecilia Bartoli. Blier is on the staff of the New York City Opera, where he is the casting consultant, and is the artistic director of the Vocal Rising Stars program at Caramoor. His schedule also includes regular visits to San Francisco Opera and Wolf Trap. A member of the Juilliard Vocal Arts faculty since 1992, Blier is also the artistic director and a co-founder of the New York Festival of Song, which will present its annual Juilliard concert on January 18 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and how did you come to know it?
I fell into accompanying simply because it was something I had done since I was in grade school—I have been playing for singers since I was 8 or 9 years old. The combustion of poetry and music remains the greatest source of fascination in my life. My first vocal recital took place when I was 13, and the singer was Matthew Epstein, then a bass-baritone in my high school, now the renowned, revered, and feared master-guru of all things operatic. I met my first professional singer, the British soprano Valerie Masterson, that same year (through Matthew), and played arias for her on her nights off from the D’Oyly Carte G&S troupe. That was the real scent of blood—making music with a powerful, beautiful, adult voice in a small New York living room. I got my first job when I was 20, playing four hours of Barber of Seville rehearsal with Frederica von Stade, Alan Titus, Neil Rosenshein, and David Alden directing. I never considered doing anything else, and opportunities kept arising in a random but forceful way.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up, and what did you learn from that person?
I had many great teachers along the way—although I never have gone to music school. I must give pride of place to my college piano teacher Alex Farkas, who introduced me to Alexander Technique. I would not be answering your questions about music had I not met Alex, who untangled my very snagged-up body and got my energy flowing in a (relatively) clear path. Before I met Alex, I tired very quickly when I was practicing; now I can play all day and all night. (Though I shouldn’t.)
What was the first recording that you remember hearing or buying?
I used to go to sleep to the Beethoven symphonies my parents played on the hi-fi (Adrian Boult, Vanguard Records). No wonder they still sound like lullabies to me. I grew up listening to Gilbert and Sullivan and still adore those operettas; I weep when I hear the overtures. My first opera recording? The Fricsay Magic Flute. The rest is history.
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer or in your career?
I was once on tour with [soprano] Catherine Malfitano and her father Joseph, a fine violinist—this was in the mid-1970s. We were in Richmond, Va., doing a Scott Joplin rag arranged for violin and piano, and I got a bit creative … improvising up a storm … and then utterly carried away with my own contrapuntal madness—and Joe got completely lost. He stopped dead—so did I—a musical car crash. He muttered something like, “I guess I can’t keep up with this young man.” I was a good boy at the next recital but I didn’t get rehired.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be, and why?
Paris. They deserve it.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I am pretty open about myself with others, so I don’t tend to think of myself as full of surprises, but I can usually raise eyebrows by letting people know I was at Woodstock. Kind of by accident, and only for one day, but I was there in the mud with the hipster-tripsters in 1969. The next day I went to Tanglewood to hear Marilyn Horne sing Berlioz’s Nuits ddété. Which I preferred.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
The most important thing in singing is to say what you’re saying, and do what you’re doing—for real. It sounds simple, but it takes experience, musical culture, literary skills, acting chops, and an intimate knowledge of oneself to be a true, transparent vessel for song.
How has your teaching changed over the years?
I am a kinder and more skillful teacher than I was 10 years ago. I am less concerned about showing what I know, and more interested in connecting my students to their innate musicality.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
The Hudson River. I have lived on the Hudson for my entire life, except for four misspent years in New Haven.
What book are you reading?
I just finished Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case, which is about learning how to sing, architects, New York, gay people, Juilliard, opera, and the eternal conundrum of harnessing musical passion. Needless to say, I felt that Gallaway had written a book specifically for me. (My partner, now my fiancé, writes about architecture.)
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
I’d probably have ended up as an editor in a publishing house, or some kind of non-M.D. psychotherapist. My current life actually includes its fair share of editing and psychotherapy.