Blog: Singing for my supper… in the Dutch Caribbean :)

Day 1: Curaçao, here I come!

Several months ago some musician friends invited me to sing on their chamber music series. Knowing their thoughtful and inventive musicianship, how could I say no? I jumped at the chance. We prepared programs for 3 concerts and one children’s concert, and rehearsed in NYC prior to travelling to… oh, did I forget to mention this part?… CURAÇAO. That’s right, one of the most beautiful islands in the Dutch Caribbean.

The Beautiful Avila Hotel

So, after a VERY long day of travel including 3 airports, 3 separate security lines, two big bags of luggage, and a partridge in a pear tree, I landed in Curaçao. Of course, I was wearing jeans, a sweater, and a down coat because I had travelled from Canada that morning. Not necessary here. I flung off my coat, and breathed in the warm Caribbean air – what a feeling!

They are serious about customs here. As we flew in, the airline flight attendants handed out customs cards for us to fill out. I filled out the “entering-the-country” side. As the other side was for those leaving the country, and as there was a perforated line between the two sides, I tore off the section that didn’t apply to me to help out the customs official. As it turns out, that was not so helpful. I somehow picked the longest customs line, and when I finally got to the counter I handed the man my passport and customs form. He asked for the other side. I didn’t have it. He said I couldn’t go through.

I started to feel nervous. I asked for another customs card, thinking I could just fill out a new one and that would suffice. They had plenty just laying around, right? Wrong. I had to wait for the next plane to arrive and ask the airline to give me one of their forms. I filled out the information again being extra careful to not break even ONE of those perforations. The customs agent smiled and allowed me to pass and collect my luggage – Whew!

The view from the balcony...

Miraculously, the wonderful woman who had come to pick me up was still waiting, and took me to the hotel just in time to meet my friends for a late dinner. We ate, caught up, and went to our rooms to catch a good night’s sleep.

So here I am, in a beautiful and well-appointed room, tired from a long day of travel, and SO excited to wake up and finally SEE the sea as it was dark when I arrived. I can hear the waves outside of my window now. The warm air is a very welcome relief from the long and cold NYC winter. Something tells me this will be the most relaxing week of work I’ve had in a long time…

Day 2: Oh Sun, how I’ve missed you!

A view of the sea...

OK, so this might be paradise. I awoke this morning to a freshly baked pastry hanging in a sweet little bag on my doorknob. I sat and had coffee while watching the sea. What better way is there to wake up?

After a slow, calm morning, I went for a jog in the area surrounding the hotel. It was fascinating to see this island. The houses are painted very bright colors, and they all have verandas of some kind. The atmosphere is very casual, and people were out and about smiling and chatting.

It’s hot here, especially in the late morning, and I turned back a little sooner than I would have normally because I didn’t want to get a sunburn. Too late. I now have a thick red necklace that looks suspiciously like the neckline of my jogging tank. That will look very chic with my concert gowns… Oh well.

After a fresh, clean, and flavorful lunch, I decided that perhaps I should practice a bit. I mean, I AM here to work, right? Scores in hand, I went to the concert hall (They have a REAL concert space here!) and practiced for a couple of hours, slowly going through my pieces for the week.

The musicians serenading our table - they were so joyful and energetic!

But the sea and warm Caribbean breeze were too tempting and drew me away for the rest of the afternoon. I did sneak in a quick 30-min rehearsal for tomorrow’s concert and headed to the restaurant for a long, laid back, lively dinner.

Wednesday night is “Antillean Night” with local specialties and live musicians walking around the tables. I could just kick myself for going vegetarian for Lent. That said, they have been so accommodating, and every dish that I’ve had has been full of local ingredients prepared beautifully.

What a place this is. I’ve never been to the Caribbean before, and this is quite a first experience to have. Our first concert is tomorrow night. I am very excited to sing for these wonderful people. They have all been so kind and warm. It will be a great pleasure to try and give something to them. Now it’s off to a good night’s sleep!

Day 3: Gypsy melodies by the sea…

Setting up for the outdoor reception outside the beautiful concert hall

Woke up this morning to another gorgeous day. Does it EVER rain here? Went for a jog, then headed to rehearse for tonight’s concert. The program was entitled An Austro-Hungarian Evening. We began with a little known Mahler piece, Quartet for Piano and Strings in A Minor. Then the husband and wife duo played Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola by Martinu. Then I was up to bat. Dvorak’s Gypsy Melodies (Zigeunermelodien) were on the docket, and it was my first time to perform them. I’m always surprised how different some songs feel in rehearsal and performance. This cycle began to take a shape I hadn’t discovered before. Of course I’m already thinking about what to do differently next time, but I must say that overall it was a good performance. The audience was warm and energetic, and I had a great time.

The second half began with a short Kodaly piece, and then the McDermott sisters took the stage with a vibrant and moving rendition of Smetana’s Trio for Piano and Strings in G minor. It’s SO clear that they’ve been playing together their whole lives. Their interplay, the way they watch and listen to each other, draws you in as an audience member. Riveting!

We ended the night with a festive dinner to relax after the long concert. The first of four concerts for the weekend, I’d say we got off to a pretty good start.

Day 4: Kids say the darndest things

The children settling in for the morning concert...

Today I woke up extra early to rehearse for a special concert. School children from all over the island came to hear us sing and play. I love children’s concerts. Yes, they can be rowdy, and they might not be the most attentive. But they ask wonderful questions, and their reactions are visceral and blatant. I realize that many of them have never heard the sound of a cello, violin, or voice so up close and personal. I think back to my first experiences with instruments, and I feel so lucky. I learned about orchestral instruments very early in school, and I grew up hearing my father play the piano in our home. Classical music, though not always at the forefront for my ear, was always available, accessible, and accepted. When I tested the classical waters it felt somehow familiar. How fortunate I was to have Bach and Beethoven in my ear at such an early age.

"Annie", a permanent fixture at the Avila Hotel

These children asked questions from asking me, “Doesn’t it hurt your throat to sing so high and loud?” to “Can you break glass?” to asking our young violinist, “How can you play so fast?”. Their enthusiasm and attention throughout the program was contagious, and I found myself asking my colleagues many similar questions at dinner. Curiosity certainly doesn’t fade with age.

Today also came with a bit of homesickness. After the concert, I began to feel melancholy. Being on the road can be hard, especially when you’re gone so long. The people here have been so warm and welcoming – I feel like one of their own. It’s just that sometimes I miss the comforts of home… Seeing familiar faces and doing familiar things. When I think about those people and how much I miss them, I just have to think about all of the positive things about this experience. What a crazy ride this is! I would never have dreamed that I would go to the Caribbean, and here I am, sipping on strawberry smoothies, singing Shostakovich by the sea. No complaints here.

Day 5: An impromptu swim

The colors of Curacao

Today began innocently enough. I woke up to a cloudy but warm day, and decided to go down to the beach and go through my music for tonight. I gathered my flip flops, scores, and sunglasses, and found a perfect chair. As I was working on one of the more difficult pieces for me, I turned the page… and pages went flying. The wind took them and deposited them in the nearby water. I NEEDED those! I threw down my binder, flipped off my flops, and dove in the water; an impromptu morning swim. After that, I was awake. I snatched the papers before they drifted out to sea, thank goodess, and found my way back to the shore. Needless to say, the entire beach was chuckling at my predicament – it was quite the sight to see! Laughing myself, I went to dry out my music with a hairdryer before the morning rehearsal.

A corner of a room in the Governor's Mansion

That afternoon we set out for the Governor’s Mansion downtown. I had not yet ventured into the heart of the city, so I was happy to see a little of the local scene. A man clad in white from his hat, to his uniform, to his gloves escorted us from our car. The governor himself, a man of immense grace and quiet power, greeted us at the door. The rooms seemed a perfect synthesis of European style sensibility and Caribbean vibrancy. We gathered in an antechamber to the hall where we would perform and prepared for the concert.

The program was a plethora of salon songs, Dvorak violin music, an opera aria, and festive music for violin, viola, and piano. I loved singing in that space, and the audience was lively and enthusiastic. Ending on a high note, literally, we all met in the garden for a lovely reception. I spoke with many of the local people, many Dutch people, and a few other Europeans – few Americans seem to know about this beautiful spot. Stylishly dresses men and women perused the sculptures and took in the beautiful view. It was quite the affair, and a real honor to participate. The governor’s wife was the epitome of elegance herself, tall, striking, with a warm smile and kind words. I know nothing of the politics of this island, but I will say that this couple represented Curaçao with utmost sophistication.

Following the concert, we went back to the hotel for a late and delicious family dinner. My last night on the island, I was reluctant to turn in early. We laughed and chatted well into the night, and forced ourselves to hit the hay to get a little rest before our final concert in the morning. What a day.

Day 6: Last day on the island

This morning I spent my last few hours on the Island of Curaçao among friends, making music, and enjoying my last hours in the warm sun for another month or so. I woke up early to finish packing, and went to our morning concert a few minutes early to go through a few last minute details.

A beautiful sculpture on the grounds of the Hotel Avila

This final program was a little heavy for a morning concert, but it seemed to bring the whole week to a head musically. We began with three simple and beautiful Mozart songs. Second on the program was the Schostakovich 7 Songs on the poetry of Alexander Blok – a truly mesmorizing cycle scored for soprano, piano, violin, and cello. This poetry runs the gamut of emotion, and the music is perfectly suited to the words and feelings. At the end of its performance I felt a great sense of accomplishment and gratitude to be able to perform this piece with musicians with great sensitivity and ability. The program ended with a vivacious rendition of a Faure piano quartet, and the audience came to its feet. As an encore and special treat, the piano quartet performed a composition of Vim Muller. He attended all of the concerts that week, and is an accomplished pianist and composer specializing in the Antillean style. It was the perfect way to end a week in beautiful Curaçao – with music of the people.

After the concert we celebrated with a delicious brunch, and I left for the airport to catch my flight to the States. What a whirlwind this week has been. I can truly say that I would probably have never visited this gem of an island were it not for the musical invitation. I would have missed out. What a breathtaking place! I am already looking forward to returning for another week of music making by the sea.

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One Comment

  1. From Judy Langreich on June 1st, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Hi Gerry Schaffer sent this on to me as I am interested in following your career,,, i was lucky to have attended your debut at the MET a couple of yrs ago,, spectacular!!!!
    I am sooo happy for you … It is wonderful that you have entered the world that can showcase your marvelous rich voice..
    i look forward to zttending another of your performances inNYC… I did manage tickets to THE DAUGHTER OF THE REIGIMENT esp to hear Juan Diego Florez,,, lollwed him to a recital in DC a couple of monthe ago..
    enjoy your life… we love you

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