On March 17, at Merkin Concert Hall, the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) presented a fascinating program, featuring Emerging Artists from its seventh annual residency at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, entitled “Bel Canto/Can Belto”—a phrase known to many of us as part of a joke told by Ira Siff/Mme Vera Galupe-Borszkh, of La Gran Scena Opera—looking at music by early 19th century Italian bel canto composers; their immediate Italian descendants; and their later Italian-American descendants. Presiding were NYFOS Artistic Director and Co-Founder Steven Blier with NYFOS Associate Artistic Director and Co-Founder Michael Barrett, formerly Caramoor’s Chief Executive and General Director. Master musician Blier and Christopher Reynolds, young and impressive, shared pianistic duties.
With Blier at the Steinway, bright-voiced mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson and lyric tenor Alec Carlson began the evening with composer Alfredo Catalani and poet Enrico Panzacchi’s “In riva al mare,” a romantic nocturne, concluding with a mutual seduction. Works by four leading Italian bel canto composers followed. Shea Owens, singing in a polished baritone and assisted by pianist Reynolds, offered Giuseppe Verdi’s “Brindisi,” to Andrea Maffei’s text, a swaggering drinking song which would not be out of place in one of Verdi’s early operas. Chelsea Morris, assisted by Blier, disclosed a pure soprano leggero—with surprises to come later—in a moving “La ricordanza,” dulcet and elegiac, by Vincenzo Bellini and Count Carlo Pepoli, an early incarnation of “Qui la voce,” from the same pair’s “I Puritani.” With Reynolds, Dawson revealed further vocal colors, using her full range and flexibility, in a rousing, florid “Bolero,” one of Gioachino Rossini’s many settings of Pietro Metastasio’s 18th century “Mi lagneró tacendo,” akin in spirit to the composer’s “Canzonetta spagnuola,” popularized by Marilyn Horne and Cecilia Bartoli. With Blier, Morris and Carlson joined voices for a propulsive and passionate “A consolarmi affrettisi,” from Gaetano Donizetti and Gaetano Rossi’s opera “Linda di Chamounix,” which Carlson, with Blier, preceded with a graceful “Vaghissima sembianza,” limning the ‘beautiful portrait’ of a past love, written by Stefano Donaudy when he was 13.
Blier called Franco Alfano’s “Non nascondere il segreto,” to a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, “Mahler meets Mascagni,” which Owens demonstrated with its contemplative beginning and ending, framing an impassioned outburst in between. Blier remained at the keyboard for Ildebrando Pizzetti’s setting of Gabriele d’Annunzio’s “I pastori,” idyllic and sung by Morris, the peaceful-sounding, almost Impressionistic narrative ultimately revealing itself as a lament of one homesick for Abruzzi, and for Ferruccio Busoni’s lively and fresh-sounding setting of Victor Blüthgen’s “Wer hat das erste Lied erdacht?,” sung by Carlson and also written when its composer, half-Italian and half-German, was 13.
Dawson and Reynolds gave us Italian-Jewish composer Mario Castelnuvo-Tedesco’s at once angular and lilting “Ulai laze yihie li ometz,” written in Ladino, but sung here in Hebrew, in which the determined speaker plans an assignation, with an earthy dance interlude, to the syllables “Ta ra lay la hopa,” punctuating the verses. In Lucinio Refice’s rhapsodic and ethereal “Ombra di nube,” to Emidio Mucci’s poem, Morris, with Reynolds, unveiled a radiant spinto timbre that could point toward to the likes of Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Madama Butterfly, more than to Bellini and Donizetti, in her future. Dawson, Owens, and Blier closed the first half of the evening with a rapturous “Sérénade napolitaine,” by Ruggero Leoncavallo to Pedro Aperte’s poetry, as edited by Blier.
Music by Italian-American composers made up the second half of “Bel Canto/Can Belto,” which began with two Elizabethan settings, Dominick Argento’s of Thomas Nashe’s “Spring,” effusively sung by Carlson, with Reynolds, and marked by a period feeling, and Norman Dello Joio’s “There is a lady sweet and kind,” taken from Thomas Ford’s “Music of Sundry Kinds,” sung with restraint by Owens, with Blier, which was pure Americana, rather than Renaissance, in sound and mood. Blier termed John Musto and Denise Lanctot’s “Penelope’s Song,” finale of the song cycle “Penelope,” “an anti-torch song,” which Musto characterized as Country-Western, while Blier called it Blues, all of which could be heard in Morris’ assured, anything but wistful statement, with Blier. Blier styled Musto and Mark Strand’s wry “Some Last Words,” from “The Book of Uncommon Prayer,” as a “nihilistic” answer to Christ’s seven last words, a flip, Weill-esque “Just go to the graveyard and ask around,” sung by the ensemble, led by Reynolds.
Music by John Corigliano and spouse Mark Adamo followed. With Reynolds, Dawson sang Corigliano’s simple, straight-forward setting of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s sad “Irreverent Heart,” and Dawson, as Susanna, and Morris, as Rosina, assisted by Blier and Reynolds, joined voices for an exquisite Mozartian “As summer brings a wistful breeze,” from Corigliano and William M. Hoffman’s opera “The Ghosts of Versailles.” With deep, gentle feeling, Owens and Blier offered the first performance in a concert hall of Adamo and Mark Campbell’s “This Much Is New,” composer and poet’s wedding gift to Blier and James Russell, sung at their wedding by Matt Boehler, and reflecting a couple’s recognition and embrace of each other’s good qualities and flaws alike.
Selections by Hollywood composer Harry Warren, né Salvatore Guaragna, played by Blier, were the final ones programmed. Carlson sang an unabashedly romantic “I Only Have Eyes for You,” written with Al Dubin for the film “Dames,” and the ensemble continued with a rollicking and exotic look at the run-around “Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” with lyrics by Dubin and Johnny Mercer, from “Garden of the Moon,” with a surprise tap-dance interlude from Reynolds! For an encore, with Blier and Reynolds, the singers sweetly harmonized on Henry Mancini and Mercer’s “Moon River,” from the filmed version of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Coming up on NYFOS’ agenda are its spring gala, “Cream of the Crop!” featuring Blier and Barrett with Emerging Artists alumni Paul Appleby, John Brancy, Julia Bullock, Theo Lebow, and Annie Rosen, at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on March 30, followed by dinner at the ‘21’ Club, and “Letters from Spain: A World of Song in Spanish Poetry,” with music by Shostakovich, Schumann, Bolcom, Taneyev, Wolf, Lieberson, Montsalvage, and Granados, sung by Corinne Winters, Lebow, and Alexey Lavrov, at Merkin on April 28. Visit www.nyfos.org
for further information.