The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), guided by treasured founders and pianists Artistic Director Steven Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett, kicked off its 28th season, as well as the New York Philharmonic's first-ever Rachmaninoff festival, with "From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends," at Merkin Concert Hall on November 10, featuring rarities, as well as some familiar songs, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and also a taste of the kind of American music he was likely to have heard when he emigrated. With Blier and Barrett at the Steinways, the bel canto singers were soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Shea Owens, and Dalit Warshaw contributed the 'singing voice' of the theremin. The Rachmaninoff songs were sung in Russian, but referred to in the printed program by their English titles, as translated by Blier and edited by Kuznetsova.
Works by Rachmaninoff began and ended the program proper. With Blier at the piano, Kuznetsova opened with "I am not a prophet," her soprano radiant in the soaring line of this setting of a poem by Aleksandr Kruglov, and Owens followed with a contemplative "She is as lovely as the noon," his baritone dark and liquid in the romantic opus and its melismas, with its words by Nicolai Minsky. With Barrett at the keyboard, Kuznetsova continued with "Harvest of Sorrow," mournful and moving, its roots in Russian Orthodox liturgical music and its text by Alexei Tolstoy, a distant relation of novelist Leo, and Owens, with intensity, recalled and accused a false-hearted, departed love in "In the Silence of the Secret Night," to poetry of Afanasy Fet.
Following Kuznetsova and Blier's restrained and flowing, then increasingly impassioned "Melody," to Semyon Nadson's poem, came a pair of tours-de-force, the popular "Torrents of Spring," with words by Fyodor Ivánovich Tyútchev, and Owens and Barrett offering an ebullient welcome to the season vernal, and "To Her," with poem by Andrei Bély telling a sort of Orpheus and Eurydice tale, and Kuznetsova and Blier touching us with the pained ode to a deceased beloved. What could follow, but Rachmaninoff's only comic song, "Were You Hiccupping?," with poetry by Prince Piotr Andreyevich Vyazemsky, performed by Owens and Barrett, beginning with spoken dedication, direct from the score, and ending with the eponymous hiccup?
Rachmaninoff was present when Lev Sergeyevich Termen AKA Léon Theremin introduced his electronic invention and, in NYFOS' program, Warshaw, assisted by Barrett, played her instrument in "Orientalia," two exotic-sounding vocalises, by Theremin associate Joseph Schillinger, as adapted for theremin. Duke Ellington's unpublished vocalise "On a Turquoise Cloud," arranged by Barrett, was written after Rachmaninoff's death, but proved in keeping with the spirit of the evening, and with Blier at the piano, Kuznetsova and Warshaw had solos and joined in treble duet, ravishing and blue, and the account ended with some stratospheric theremin notes. George Gershwin was among those who studied with Schillinger and Rachmaninoff heard Gershwin play the premiere of his "Rhapsody in Blue" with Paul Whiteman's orchestra, at Aeolian Hall. George and Ira Gershwin wrote "Lady, Be Good!" that same year and, from it, Owens and Blier gave us a breezy "Little Jazz Bird," in Blier's arrangement, incorporating quotations from the "Rhapsody" into his accompaniment for the chorus-for which Owens sported shades-and the instrumental solo at the start of the reprise. Concluding this section was Thurlow Lieurance and J.M. Cavanass' Sioux-style love song "By the Waters of Minnetonka," with Owens, Blier, and Barrett performing the original and the pianists segueing into a zesty jazz arrangement by Zez Confrey.
Returning to Rachmaninoff's music, Owens vividly offered songs full of longing "A dream," with Alexei Pleshneyev's poetry, translated from Heinrich Heine's, and "Beloved, let us fly," with words by Arsenii Golenishchev-Kutuzov, which Owens ended quietly, and partly in head tone. Blier assisted in the first and Barrett, in the second. Kuznetsova caressingly sang a paean to "Sleep," with text by Feodor Sologub, and yearned for an absent beloved in "A-ooo!," with words by Konstantin Balmont. Blier again played the first and Barrett, the second. The full company collaborated on the finale-Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," beginning with Kuznetsova and Blier, then Warshaw, Barrett, and Owens, then with the singers blending voices with each other and with Warshaw's theremin, with soprano and thereminist both adept at trilling-and on the apt encore, Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman's "Full Moon and Empty Arms," derived from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto Number Two.
On December 8 at 8 pm, NYFOS turns to "Schubert|Beatles," with Sari Gruber, Paul Appleby, Andrew Garland, Blier, Barrett, and violinist Charles Yang. "At Home," with songs by Saint-Saëns, Bernstein, Poulenc, Balfe, Montsalvatge, and Bucchino, sung by Caramoor's 2016 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars, is slated for March 15, 2016, and "Compositoria: Songs by Latin American Women," including María Grever, Violeta Parra, Odaline de la Martínez, Ernestina Lecuona, Chabuca Granda, Susana Baca, Joyce Morena, and Beatriz Lockhart, sung by María Valdés and Efrain Solis, is on April 26. Performances take place at Merkin Hall at 129 West 67th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. NYFOS' spring gala is entitled "Topsy-Turvy: the NYFOS Guide to Gilbert & Sullivan," with Lauren Worsham, Bryce Pinkham, Hal Cazalet, and Blier, on April 5 at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, followed by dinner at '21' Club. Visit www.nyfos.org
for further information.