In the world of classical music, there is no one quite like Steven Blier. Over the course of his nearly five-decade career, Blier has worked as a recital accompanist for opera stars such as Jessye Norman, Cecilia Bartoli, and Renée Fleming, and he has been a faculty member at the Juilliard School since 1992. But perhaps his biggest contribution to classical music has been as the artistic director and co-founder with Michael Barrett of the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), a non-profit, which presents song recitals with music by a diverse mix of composers, such as Sondheim, Schubert, Poulenc and The Beatles.
This eclecticism Blier brings to his programming has not only brought new attention to forgotten works, but has also breathed new life into the sometimes stiff world of the song recital. NYFOS' upcoming concert on March 17th is called "The Art of Pleasure," and explores different types of pleasure ranging from romance and the seaside to some of life's darker indulgences. We sat down with Blier last week to talk about his upcoming concert, the transformative power of song and why he wants you to feel more pleasure.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception about art song recitals, or art song in general? How do you address these misconceptions in your work?
I think people think that art song recitals are snooty. I think they think that they're somehow only about things in the past. I think they think it's remote from them.
I combat that by ... well, you know what my concerts are like. They're crazy. And they always have been. They're full of surprises.
I think what surprises people in the concerts we do is they will be really grooving out to something that they didn't even know existed ten minutes before the curtain went up. And then suddenly, [they'll say], "Oh my God, that was fantastic. What was that? I didn't even know that was there."
What makes the art form of song unique? What does it do for listeners that no other art form can?
Well, I think there are a few things about song. One is that we don't use microphones. The idea of being sung to without the intermediary of amplification is a very big factor in how the music is received. It's pure vibration straight from us to you. Which makes of course a more intimate form.
The other thing about song is that it's very story-oriented. The great song singers are usually the great storytellers.
When a song or a song recital is really well performed, what effect do you see it have on the audience?
People tell me that they often feel quite transformed after a NYFOS concert. And I don't really know why. I don't understand it. But I've heard it for decades now. [My husband] Jimmy had a friend who came up from New Orleans. Giselle I think was her name. And she doesn't go to a lot of concerts. And nothing like NYFOS. And she came up to me and said, "Steve, I am transformed. I am a different woman now."
I try in my concerts not be soothing, but I like to give people a sense of order. That the world can be, through art, you can put your world in order. It's hard for me to describe, but when the program has a really good arc, a good second-to-last number, a good last number, and a good encore, there's this sort of thing that you have tied things up in a way, opened up a lot of subjects, and you've made, in some kind of way, some form of happy ending for people.
Your upcoming concert's theme is pleasure. Why did you decide to take on this subject?
Because I turned on then news one morning, and just thought "Oh, God." It just doesn't get worse than this. And I thought, "People need to be reminded of the beauties of life." I think I can do that. I think I want to take that on, just to remind people to be good citizens, but also remember God gave us X amount of days on earth. There's beauty out there. Appreciate it.
You talk about a song being like a movie. What do you mean by this?
I once did this Meyerbeer song. I would play it, and for no particular reason, this seashore would come to my mind. It had a bollard, and not much sand, but a lot of grass. It was actually the Long Island Sound. I don't know where that place is, but I know it was Long Island Sound [with] fairly tranquil water. Anyway, I put the song away for a number of years, and came back to it fifteen years later. I start playing it, and there's my seashore; it's still there.
Why did you make song the focus of your career? What attracted you to it?
I wanted to be on stage. I did not want to be playing opera rehearsals, not even at he highest level. The piano is the heart of a song. I know that's crazy, because for 99.99 percent of the world, the singer is the heart of a song. But not for me. In a song, the singer is like the actor that you see on the screen in the movie. But the piano is like the cinematographer. He actually has a lot of control of what is going on in that room. So, I liked being the cinematographer.
Is the visual aspect a big part of the music-making process for you?
I think maybe more than for some other musicians. It's also bound up with sound. Like, I'll say I want to play a yellow D natural. I wanna make a pink B flat. And I don't always really get the color I want; sometimes it's just brown.
I think song is important to me, because it has so much to do with fantasy. I feel like I'm dreaming onstage. I'm putting my dream into sound. The singer is imagining something, and singing from what they're imagining. Everyone in the audience is sitting there imagining. And they think what they're imagining is what the singer's imagining. And it isn't what they think it is. And that's okay. They know what it's making them feel and think.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
NYFOS will be performing The Art of Pleasure on Tuesday, March 17th at 8pm at Merkin Hall on 129 West 67th Street. Tickets are available for purchase at: nyfos.org/the-season.
"The thing about song is that it's very story-oriented. The great song singers are usually the great storytellers." Steven Blier