New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) is dedicated to the celebration of vocal music and those who perform it. On December 8, a program and performance took place that is one of my favorite of the NYFOS gems that I’ve seen so far, entitled “Schubert|Beatles.” The brainchild of baritone Theo Hoffman, who was also one of the performers, and publicist Aleba Gartner, their suggestion to Artistic Director Steven Blier fired his imagination and as he thought more and more about the program, the parallels between Franz Schubert and the Beatles became evident–both were most memorably reflective of their respective times, and both Schubert and the Beatles had truncated careers–Schubert’s cut short by his death at 31 and the Beatles in the dis-chord of their unraveling group’s relationships. The pantheon of stars here included soprano Sari Gruber, tenor Paul Appleby, baritone Andrew Garland, Hoffman also performing on guitar, Charles Yang on violin, and Associate Director Michael Barrett with Blier on piano. What an amazing trip we took together!
The initial pairing included a version of the Beatles’ “The Word,” with Garland and Hoffman, assisted by Blier, that Gruber and Appleby joined at the end. It was followed immediately by Schubert’s “Licht und Liebe,” with Barrett, where Appleby and Gruber each had a verse then combined in a sublime blend.
Then Yang created an aural painting in “Blackbird,” where birdsong and Nature featured prominently, looped for him to play over by hand and with bow for a landscape of pure beauty. We segued from there into “And Your Bird Can Sing,” with Gruber and Blier, hearkening back to the bird song with quotes in arch places, drawing laughter from the audience.
Next up was “Alinde,” with Barrett, where Appleby gave us the range and color of his silken voice in this masterful piece of storytelling and longing. Appleby, Yang, and Blier followed this with “Julia”, John Lennon’s love song to the mother he lost twice–once when sent to live with his aunt as a child and then when she was killed in a tragic car accident. Both are songs of love and longing and made a memorable pairing.
“An Schwager Kronos,” with Barrett, gave us our first taste of Garland’s rich baritone and command of the German language. He owned this song that told of life as a hero’s quest in Kronos’ chariot and the sense of how short and rich life truly is. Garland and Blier followed this with George Harrison’s “Taxman,” with Yang on violin, and Hoffman on guitar and harmonizing in falsetto. Then, the touching “If I Fell,” with Blier, was a positive mysticism type duet with Garland and Paul Appleby turned out from one another singing to the audience, then shyly joining hands at the end–adorable and touching.
Gruber and Barrett returned to delight us with “Im Frühling,” a pastoral meander through the land of lost love and remembering. This was accented with Appleby joining with Hoffman, Yang, and Blier for a bittersweet “Yesterday” to give us the full measure of melancholy.
From nostalgia to sex, the next song was “Im Walde” (“Waldesnacht”), with Garland and Barrett, and the description of the wildness of a stormy night in the woods seems to be Schubert’s thinly veiled story of a wild night indeed–sexy and dark. Of course my second thought was of “Judy Garland Memorial Park,” between Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, and how many Waldesnachts have been enacted, al fresco, in similar circumstances. Andrew Garland’s powerful voice gives us the sense of the hero lurking in all of us. With Blier, Gruber provided the other side of passion’s coin–revenge. It is quite a different experience to hear “Norwegian Wood” from a feminine perspective and her arch delight in making matchsticks of a bounder’s furniture was worthy of the Grinch.
Then came yet another side of love’s coin–the ache of loss–which was delivered in achingly beautiful tenor pining by Appleby, with Barrett, first in “Du liebst mich nicht,” very histrionic and the opposite of the stoic German as we typically imagine, and then “For No One,” with Blier, where a more mature relationship founders and while one party can no longer imagine a life together, the other’s world is destroyed without a shred of a clue, in what seems like a moment and a lifetime at once.
The musical line-up changed a bit, moving “Der Wanderer an den Mond” to the next spot. Garland and Barrett gave us this happy, yet bittersweet paean to wanderers everywhere, and seemingly also reflected Schubert’s sense of being an outsider. A segue directly into “She’s Leaving Home” with Garland and Blier and then Gruber painted volumes of both the changes in their conventional lives, which 1960s teens wanted to make happen for themselves, and the heartbreak of parents who are sometimes forced into recognizing their children’s nascent adulthood.
Hoffman’s solo “Du bist die Ruh” gave us his rich espresso baritone while he accompanied himself on guitar. It’s easy to imagine him standing beneath a bower singing to someone above and I could swear I hard hearts melting all around me, and perhaps a swoon or three. With Blier, Hoffman and Gruber then serenaded us with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as a nod to all that’s happening in the world today. Yang joined in on violin with pizzicato plucking alternating with smoothness that brought tears to my eyes. Hoffman alternating up into falsetto and Gruber’s emotional color, with Yang and Hoffman’s playing, were all affecting.
The penultimate piece on the program was Schubert’s very last composed song, “Die Taubenpost,” with Appleby and Barrett, nominally about a carrier pigeon in the speaker’s employ. This song of longing gave me pause, wondering what Schubert was longing for so close to his untimely death, but his vision was clear. The final Beatles selection, “In My Life,” was performed by the ensemble, with Blier. This tied up the entire program so neatly, that it almost seemed like there wouldn’t be an encore! Blier in fact said they’d been so busy preparing the program that they hadn’t rehearsed one! But then Garland came to the rescue with something very timely: the ensemble serenaded Mr. Blier with a very touching and funny tribute, “When I’m 64,” in honor of a recent “significant” birthday. Each of the singers took up a verse, with the insouciant Yang adding quotes, from Chopin’s Funeral March, for instance, and grace notes that brought laughter on several occasions. Among my favorites, however, was Garland’s Teutonic baritone profundo German-language verse, accompanying himself on the piano, and even quoting “Der Erlkönig.” The song made for a brilliant, touching and an appropriate finale for the evening.
Several times during this program, that took place on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, I felt like Lennon and Harrison were with us at Merkin Hall, thoroughly enjoying the team of virtuosi sharing collective genius of generations. It’s time for you to join us for 2016’s NYFOS Next—on February 4, 11, and 16 at 7 p.m. at Opera America’s National Opera Center—and more. Visit www.NYFOS.org
to give the gift of live performance–there’s nothing like it! Catch fire from the brilliance of today’s and tomorrow’s stars!