We knew that 2018 was destined to be a great year and, as many of us leave the angst of 2017 behind, the first sign of greatness came with the celebration of two genius composers who both celebrate their 80th birthdays this year. With a dazzling program of brilliant music and bright new voices, New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) and the Juilliard School showed, on January 11, that they surely know how to throw a party!
Steven Blier, the Artistic Director of NYFOS, and the principal pianist, as well as the lone arranger, created a program that beautifully showed the breadth of each composer’s work, as well as the range of each of the singers. Chris Reynolds, whom many of us know as NYFOS’ Associate Pianist, added to the texture of the evening. Featured singers were soprano Kathryn Henry, mezzo-sopranos Myka Murphy and Nicole Thomas, tenor Matthew Pearce, and baritones Dominick Belavy and Gregory Feldmann. Rounding out the musical line-up was guitarist Jack Gulielmetti and the performance was staged by Mary Birnbaum whom many will remember from Juilliard productions ranging from “Die Zauberflöte” to “Eugene Onegin.” Her work had the cast dancing, mugging, and moving to our heart’s delight, adding to the enjoyment of the compositions and the texture of the vocal work.
Leading off the all-Corigliano, first act was Susanna and Rosina’s duet “As Summer Brings a Wistful Breeze,” from “The Ghosts of Versailles,” to William M. Hoffman’s libretto, where we first met Henry and Thomas, as their voices joined in classic harmonies, round and beautiful and true.
Next, showing his antic sense of humor, Corigliano set E.Y. “Yip” Harburg poetry to music. Yes, lyricist Yip Harburg, who wrote “Over the Rainbow” with Harold Arlen, also wrote light verse. Imagine a love-child of Ogden Nash and O. Henry, and you’ll get a feel for the bitterly humorous genius of the songs. The odds-on favorite, with its light expression of weighty matters, was “Irreverent Heart,” with its modern harmonies and questing feel–Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” set to music. “Critical” imagines the dank disjointed bitterness Harburg found in reviewers’ hearts, acerbically decaying their sensibilities and permitting them to say such mean things, and “One Sweet Morning,” which had as its musical basis a non-vocal song cycle written for the New York Philharmonic, includes the shimmering vision for peace we hope will be part of 2018. This was also our introduction to Feldmann’s voice, with his excellent control of color, dynamic range, and scope. This performance marked the world premiere of this complete cycle and the first and third songs were entirely new.
Henry returned to give us the final two songs of Corigliano’s “Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan.” Illuminating Dylan’s lyrics, “Chimes of Freedom” give us dark, martial arpeggiations, the paean, and the price, of war. In “Postlude: Forever Young,” there is gentle sweetness, as Henry moved among her cast mates on the stage, bestowing a benediction on each one.
Next were selections from “Metamusic”–you guessed it!—songs about music. Leading off was Belavy, in his first vocal appearance, with the superbly clever “Dodecaphonia,” wherein he becomes a Chandleresque private eye hot on the trail of a twelve-tone row villainess. Thomas was next with “Marvelous Invention,” about the original iPod and how it changed the way we listen to music, forever. Delightfully acted and drawing rueful laughter, Thomas hit the spot for so many of us with similar addictions. Murphy then made her vocal debut of the evening, with “End of the Line,” reminding us that prior to downloading from anywhere, we formerly visited brick-and-mortar bastions of magic, where we acquired our music in various forms.
Feldmann returned for a world premiere cabaret piece, with lyrics by John Bucchino that can rend the heart: “no comet ever scratched the sky,” about the end of a love affair. Feldmann gave us nuanced philosophical heart in this newly-minted treat. The final song of the act gave us the entire ensemble in “Liebeslied,” wherein everyone truly loved everybody, and that is truly a model we can use.
The Bolcom works began with a trio from his “Cabaret Songs,” written with Arnold Weinstein. Belavy showed us his great storytelling ability in “He Tipped the Waiter,” while Feldmann’s secret pillow talk in “Can’t Sleep” sparked very personal memories. Murphy chewed nails and spits tacks in ”The Last Lousy Moments of Love,” as she relived the perfidy of man–a particular man–whom I think we all may have dated at one point. Bolcom knows the human heart so well, and we see it all in the span of these songs.
Next was a trio of songs from 1990s musical “Casino Paradise,” another collaboration with Weinstein, where first Pearce limned the life of a benighted son in “A Great Man’s Child,” illuminated in walking-blues style. Then Feldmann ably demonstrated why the son is plagued by the father, in “It Will Be Our Little Secret”–and truly, everyone’s got at least one! Thomas showed us the Great Man’s daughter, in “Night, Make My Day,” as she contemplated her transition from grown daughter to fully activated femme fatale, using the very lowest portion of her voice–wow!
Henry returns in Bolcom’s setting of Jane Kenyon’s ‘Otherwise,” reminding us thatwe can have everything material, yet still not have what we really want, and fully evoking the bittersweet butterscotch flavor of a soul that is beautifully damaged by melancholy. Next, Murphy gave us full-voiced delight, as she explained how to “Swing Those Obbligatos Around, to Alice Fulton’s text, from “I Will Breathe a Mountain.” Moving from there to “Canciones de Lorca,” Pearce gave us two very different selections, Federico García Lorca in despair pre-coming out in “Soneto de la dulce queja,” and Lorca in the fullness of enjoying all that he is in “El poeta llega a la Habana,” when Lorca goes to Havana and is able to revel in every bit of himself. In “Soneto,” Bolcom gave us the lilt of the deep song of flamenco, with its passion as a banked fire. Gulielmetti’s guitar gently moving, weeping, striving during “Soneto,” ultimately led us to “Habana,” which blooms with tropical heat and the utter joy Lorca expresses at being a poet among people who appreciate him, suffering all but forgotten.
Bolcom’s opera “Lucrezia” is a new wrinkle on an old Machiavelli tale and the charming derring-do between a priest, of sorts (Pearce), and the titular Lucrezia (Thomas) was thoroughly enjoyable in “His Manner is Gentle.” In the finale of this portion, the cast joined together for “The Right Thing,” from “Open House” in 1975–arguably produced during a time, as we have now, where the country needed to find its way. The consistent reminder in Theodore Roethke’s text was “The right thing happens to the happy man,” a brilliant ending, but we were not yet ready to let the cast go.
Throughout the evening, I thought about how much I love sitting in an audience which gives the negative space after each performance–the savored moment after the decay of the last note performed–time to exist in space, prior to filling it with applause. Applause there was, but the perspicacity of the audience in taking that moment makes all the difference in the world.
Ultimately, we enjoyed both composers, who came out on stage celebrated by cast and audience with balloons and love and an encore. An encore of … what else? … Bolcom’s ebullient “Amor!” Both the Corigliano act, with “Liebeslied,” and the Bolcom act, sending us into the night with “Amor,” ably demonstrated that to navigate the shoals in which we find ourselves, all we need is Love.
Do you want to hear the stars of tomorrow today? Visit www.NYFOS.org
for more information about the main stage season, NYFOS Next, and other delights to come.