New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), led by Artistic Director Steven Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett, at the Steinway pianos, began its 35th season with an early celebration of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s 1918 birth, and the featured work on this opening night, November 7, at Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Concert Hall, was the composer’s compelling and varied song cycle, for six singers, “Songfest” (1977). The work was performed in John Musto’s arrangement for two pianos and percussion, in lieu of full orchestra, and the fine young singers were soprano Chelsea Shephard; mezzo-sopranos Lucia Bradford, in her NYFOS debut, and Annie Rosen; tenor Miles Mykkanen; baritone Justin Austin; and bass-baritone Adrian Rosas. Barry Centanni and Taylor Goodson, making his NYFOS debut, were the percussionists.
“Songfest” was originally commissioned for the American bicentennial and all of its songs are based on American poetry. The opening, for the full company, is a setting of Frank O’Hara’s “To the poem,” which begins “Let us do something grand,” making for a fittingly stately, sometimes fugal, start to this rendition. Austin lent his liquid baritone to “The Pennycandystore Beyond the El,” to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry, and conveyed the eagerness of a boy on the cusp of childhood and adolescence, singing the ‘little kid’ part lightly and giving the youth’s first sexual awareness his full, sturdy adult voice. With understanding and understatement, sweet-voiced Shephard limned the Puerto Rican poet’s inner conflict, between her public and private faces, in “A Julia de Burgos,” sole song here in Spanish. Ebony-toned Rosas, backed by the others, offered a warm “To what you said,” Walt Whitman’s paean to gay male love, its cello prelude hauntingly rendered by the pianists. Austin delivered a reserved and dignified “I, too, sing America,” with poem by Langston Hughes, in counterpoint to rich-voiced Bradford’s earthy, mischievous “Okay Negroes,” to June Jordan’s words.
In a trio akin to Richard Strauss’ in “Der Rosenkavalier” and Benjamin Britten’s quartet in “Peter Grimes,” the women beautifully blended voices in peacefully penetrating song of devotion “To my dear and loving husband,” to a poem by Anne Bradstreet, written in colonial America. In “Storyette H.M.,” based on Gertrude Stein’s piece about Henri and Amélie Matisse, Shephard and Rosas painted a dubious picture of domestic tranquility. More enigmatic than the Stein and more bohemian than the Ferlinghetti, the company’s “if you can’t eat,” after e.e. cummings, proved serious, but bouncy, with a lulling ending. Rosen’s “Music I Heard with you,” to Conrad Aiken’s text, made for a lovely, gentle then tearful song of love lost. Mykannen lavished his bright lyric tenor on “Zizi’s Lament,” exotic and pulsating, based on Gregory Corso’s poem about coming of age, with issues, in an Arabian family. Bradford lent her rich voice, poised between mezzo and contralto, to Edna St. Vincent Millays reminiscence, now accomplished and satisfied, then rueful and wrenching, “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.”
The ringing grand finale of “Songfest” was the full complement’s “Israfel,” Bernstein’s setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, and the encore was “Nachspiel,” a hummed lullaby, which concludes Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles.”
Preceding “Songfest,” NYFOS explored, for the most part, Bernstein’s contributions to music theater. In selections from “West Side Story,” with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Mykkanen captured Tony’s enthusiasm in his smooth “Something’s coming;” Rosen and Shephard realized Anita and Maria’s intense confrontation in “A boy like that,” ending harmoniously with “I have a love;” and the singers collaborated on a rousing “Tonight Quintet,” capped with Shephard and Mykkanen’s bright top tones. Soprano and tenor joined voices exquisitely for a playful “You were dead, you know,” from “Candide,” with lyrics by John Latouche and Richard Wilbur. In songs, with words by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, that were cut from “Wonderful Town” and “On the Town,” respectively, Rosen lent rubicund tone to “The story of my life,” gently plaintive predecessor of “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” punctuated by one well-placed bloodcurdling scream, from the “lower depths,” and Bradford sang the blues in a plangent “Ain’t got no tears left.” Austin and Rosen, separately together, sang the Prelude and Love Duet from “Arias and Barcarolles,” ending liltingly, but ever alienated. In music from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” to Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics, Rosas, as President James Buchanan—“He was not a very good President,” said Blier, “but apparently he was not the worst President we ever had”—decided, in an angular waltz, that “We must have a ball,” in response to reporter Mykkanen’s question, “Mr. President, will you please explain how having a ball will make America great again?;” Austin limned childhood playmate “Seena,” with whom he reconnects when they’ve grown up; and Mykannen, entrusted with First Lady Abigail Adams’ entreaty “Take care of this house,” delivered a melting account, with a commanding high A near the end. NYFOS also participates in A Bernstein Marathon, at Elebash Recital Hall, at CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, on December 2. NYFOS returns to Merkin, at 129 West 67th Street, on February 27, 2018, for “Protest,” music of comfort and courage from oppressed communities, with sopranos Mikaela Bennett and Christine Taylor Price, mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaleb, tenor Joshua Blue, baritones Dimitri Katotakis and Jacob Scharfman, bass Andrew Munn, and guitarist Jack Gulielmetti, with Blier and Chris Reynolds on piano. Visit www.nyfos.org
for more information and www.kaufmanmusiccenter.org for tickets.