Maria Wirries, 15, has been seen on nearly every stage in Sarasota, and she’s been a soloist or in the ensemble of many different performing groups in the area — from Gloria Musicae, to the Jacobites Pipe and Drum Band, to performing in June LeBell’s Musical Conversations program for Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning (SILL). It was the latter performance that led Maria to make her first visit to New York City in June.
Sarasota resident LeBell called herself a “Manhattaner” up until 2002, when the New York-native moved here. There, she worked as the first female classical music radio announcer. She and her husband, Edward Alley, retired orchestra manager of the New York Philharmonic, had been planning a trip to New York City in June. LeBell and Maria were talking about this future trip over a January lunch post-SILL concert.
“You’ve never been to New York? Oh, well, we’ll have to fix that!” LeBell said to Maria.
So, Maria and her entourage: aunt/adopted mother Jeaneen Wirries, “fairy godmother” Ilene Friedman, voice teacher Alan Corey and his partner, Seth Wertz, bought their plane tickets and made reservations at the Millennium Hotel, right in the thick of Times Square. And LeBell arranged a few special moments for the talented teenager.
LeBell showed Maria “her New York” — the quiet, residential side of things. She took her to the 9/11 Memorial, a few blocks from where LeBell used to reside; it would be LeBell’s first time seeing the memorial since she was shaken from her bed the day the planes hit the Twin Towers. LeBell arranged a private tour of Lincoln Center, where before becoming a radio announcer, she once gave tours.
LeBell also helped arrange a special opportunity for Maria. Maria took a vocal coaching session with one of Lebell’s old friends, Tony-award winning Broadway vocalist Barbara Cook, at her apartment on Riverside Drive. Cook worked with her on concentrating on the lyrics and emotions to move the audience — “Don’t smile all the time!” Cook told her. “Sing what you feel!” But Maria had a little trouble when she had to sing a song about being in love, because she’s never experienced it.
However, one song in particular really resonated with Maria. She sang a song composer and pianist Alex Rybeck wrote for Broadway vocalist Faith Prince that Prince had performed in Sarasota. Maria got special permission to change the word “darling” to “mother,” and sang it in honor of her adopted mother, Jeaneen Wirries.
“My mom is very important to me because she came down to Haiti at age 62 … brought me back to the States and raised me,” Maria says. “She has been working hard so that I can do what I want to do and be a performer — it was a big sacrifice.” Maria said she really feels the words she’s singing.
LeBell also helped arrange a private vocal showcase at the apartment of one of her friend’s posh apartments on the Upper East Side, to be attended by 17 knowledgeable people who might someday help Maria — people in show business and the classical music world, such as a New York Times columnist and a retired opera singer. Maria sang the Prince song, and she nailed it. She honestly connected with the lyrics and, in-turn, the audience. LeBell said it became an emotional moment for everyone in attendance and that Maria showed great growth.
“She managed to incorporate all (of Cook’s) suggestions — it sounded like a different singer,” she says.
But, in a New York moment, they were onto the next stop on their adventures. A rain-drenched visit to the campus of New York University; the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; a shopping trip; a restaurant with only chocolate on the menu; a few Broadway shows; and Maria even got to attend the Tony Awards. It’s no wonder she sees herself coming back to The Big Apple for another bite.
“The whole trip was amazing,” she says. “It seems like the kind of place for me.”
To see more photos from Maria's NYC trip, click more photos above.