The New York Festival of Song’s NYFOS Next season, this month at Opera America’s National Opera Center, opened on February 3 with a program, hosted by NYFOS Associate Artistic Director and Co-Founder Michael Barrett, that introduced intriguing new music by five composers, whetting the appetite to hear more of their efforts.
With John Musto and, at times, Barrett at the piano, George Steel shared five excerpts from a very contemporary-sounding, as yet untitled show, a work in progress about, in Steel’s words, “coming home, the meaning of home,” and this was the selections’ world premiere. Soprano Meredith Lustig sang the immediately endearing, fresh and lilting “Prologue: Recitative and Waltz,” which Steel called a “pseudo-aria,” beginning, “Once upon a time a little girl like me.” “There’s You,” which Steel styled an “‘almost’ love song,” followed, with Lustig, with restraint, recalling adventures in Paris. Baritone Jonathan Estabrooks portrayed two very different brothers, in the contrasting “Fight Song of ’49,” martial and explosive, saluting the Princeton Class of 1949, and the contemplative “How Does It Feel?,” considering, with discouragement, a life and work. Finally came Lustig’s “Am I Home?,” beginning questioningly, tentatively, and building up to become the “power ballad” that Steel described it as.
Gabriel Kahane and poet Matthew Zapruder’s compelling “Three Vernacular Songs,” having their world premiere, were commissioned as a high school graduation gift for an 18-year-old. In the course of these indeed youthful-sounding songs, Estabrooks was obliged to sing in head tone, to shout, and to dig deep into the lowest reaches of his voice. Leann Ostercamp was the pianist. Beginning in a laboratory, a Princeton researcher’s “Dream Job” was to study migrating thrushes, heading to Canada, for instance. In the song “Canada,” our hero now breezily, now angrily probed the mysteries of our neighbor to the north, and in “First Time, Long Time,” variously touched on birds on the roof, the cat, the “old lady,” the contradictory emotions baseball inspires, and “Tunisia, Brooklyn, and Spain!”
Barrett and soprano Ilana Davidson gave the world premiere of “The Obsidian Morning,” the first song ever written by Juantio Becenti, a young gay Navajo, living with his Evangelical Christian parents in Utah. To poetry by Renee Pudonovich, Davidson, using, by turns, Sprechstimme, song, and speech, took a mystical look at the elements and the vastness of the cosmos. Hear more of Becenti’s work, commissioned by Mohawk cellist Dawn Avery, in the soundtrack for the documentary film “Two Spirits,” about the life and murder of transgendered Navajo Fred Martinez.
With Ostercamp, baritone Theo Hoffman gave us a pulsating “O Swallow, Swallow,” hopeful and vibrant, from Jonathan Dove’s “Three Tennyson Songs,” to poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, instructing a swallow given the responsibility of bearing a love message. Hoffman presents the New York premiere of the three songs at his recital at Alice Tully Hall on March 26.
Works by Adam Guettel concluded the concert. In “There I Go,” Lustig, assisted by NYFOS Artistic Director and Co-Founder Steven Blier, urgently expressed, in a voice more Broadway than classical, the desire to go into such impenetrable places as the green glass of a coffee table, “a vaulted door,” locations where signs warn “danger: hazard,” and “New York City.” In songs from “Millions,” boy soprano Luca Padovan, assisted by Barrett, sang the songs of two more very different brothers, whose mother has died. Anthony is “the tough guy,” into video games, singing the lively “Childish Things,” but acting as guardian to Damian, the visionary, whose passion is the saints, and who sings “Find Me,” a prayer and plea addressed to his ‘sainted’ mother, Maureen. Finally, the cast, including Blier, sang snappily, in “St. Who?” of the martyrdom of St. Brigid and St. Margaret—does Maureen qualify to be in their midst?
The NYFOS Next season continues on February 10 at 7 p.m. with “Paul Moravec & Friends,” and February 17 at 7 p.m. with “Bright Sheng & Friends.” Opera America’s National Opera Center is located at 330 Seventh Avenue at 29th Street, on the Seventh Floor. Tickets are $15. Visit www.nyfos.org/next
or telephone 646/230-8380.