On April 24, to close its subscription season at Merkin Hall, the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), guided by Founding Artistic Director Steven Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett, inspired and inspiring both, presented a fascinating musical portrait of Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), multi-faceted Spanish gay and anti-fascist hero and martyr, poet, playwright, and musician, entitled “García Lorca: Muse & Magician.” Most songs considered were, of course, Spanish but, surprisingly, there were also some that were American, written and sung either in English or in Spanish. The company for the concert consisted of outstanding and polished lyric singers Corinne Winters, soprano, and Efraín Solís, baritone; guitarist Oren Fader; percussionist Leonardo Granados; and at the pianos, Blier and Barrett.
Winters and Fader began a group of songs, which Lorca collected in Andalusia and arranged, with a seductive “La tarara,” originally dating from the 18th century, and Solís responded with a very lyric and pensive 15th century “Tres morillas de Jaen,” song of three Muslim women—Axa and Fátima, named for the wife and daughter of Mohammed, and Marién, taking her name from Mary—who were forced to convert to Christianity and whose fertile land was seized. Solís, Winters, and Fader next joined forces for folk song “Los cuatro muleros” (the four muleteers).
A number of Lorca poems that were set to music concern children and Blier described the poems as “sensitive and enigmatic.” Assisted by Blier, Winters gave us a pointedly understated reading of the dramatic text for Federico Mompou’s “El niño mudo” (the mute boy)—silenced, Blier explained, as Lorca was, as a gay man and anti-fascist; Solís seamlessly executed the many angular melismas of Xavier Montsalvatge’s “El lagarto está lorando” (the lizard is crying); and the two singers offered the latter composer’s “Canción tonta” (silly song), marked by a solemn sort of silliness, with Solís playing a young boy and Winters portraying his mother. Blier pointed out that Lorca was still such a controversial figure in the 1950s, when the songs were written, that neither Mompou nor Montsalvatge identified him as the poet whose words they set. Completing this group were Winters’ somber account of Anton García Abril’s lullaby “Nana niño nana,” to words from Lorca’s play “Bodas de sangre” (“Blood Wedding”), with Barrett at the piano, and the two singers’ light-hearted renditon of Silvestre Revueltas’ “El caballito,” about a little, hard-working horse, assisted by Blier.
Manuel de Falla was serious Lorca’s contrastingly cheerful mentor and friend, also gay, and two of his songs, played by Blier, were considered here. With assistance from Fader as well, Winters beautifully declaimed Falla’s setting of Spanish Renaissance poet Luis de Góngora’s “Soneto a Córdoba,” a courtly sonnet with 20th century overtones, while Solís made an apt case for the romantic “Jota,” from “Siete canciones populares españolas,” well known as the territory of the likes of Conchita Supervia, Victoria de los Angeles, and Shirley Verrett.
Knowledge of Lorca’s homosexuality was long suppressed by his friends and family, but Blier came up with settings of two of his gayest poems, which were accompanied here by Barrett. Winters delivered a sincere “Es verdad” (it’s true), Lorca’s love poem, set to music by composer and baritone Roberto Bañuelas, and Solís, donning a sheer, white, lacy scarf, breezily limned the subject of Maurice Ohana’s “Tango el mariquita” (the sissy tango), mariquita literally meaning ladybug, but also used, according to Blier, as a “derogatory word for a gay person.”
Unusually paired here, and reflecting Lorca’s love of earthy gypsy music and flamenco, were William Bolcom’s “Soneto de la dulce queja” (sonnet of the sweet complaint), a melisma-laced setting of Lorca’s darkly masochistic poem, written for the love of his life, and here a collaboration of Solís, Fader, Blier, and Barrett, and with Barrett, Carlos Surinach’s “Oración,” a breast-beating prayer, to a text by St. Teresa of Ávila, which took fullest advantage of the darkest colors in Winters’ lyric instrument.
Coming into the home stretch of this rich evening, we heard two cheerfully lilting songs by bisexual writer and composer Paul Bowles to Lorca poetry, “Cancioncilla” (little song), performed by Solís, and “Balada amarilla” (yellow ballad), sung by Winters, both with Barrett assisting. Next came two gently rocking songs in English, inspired by Lorca and played by Blier, Billy Strayhorn’s sensual “The Flowers Die of Love,” caressingly sung by Winters, and Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz,” sung lightly, but whole heartedly by Solís. Some of Lorca’s most fulfilling time as a gay man was that which he spent in Cuba. To represent Lorca’s life-changing experience there, the full company came together for singer Ana Belén’s catchy Afro-Cuban setting of Lorca’s “Son de los negros en Cuba,” for the program’s finale, with Blier at the piano, the singers and Barrett playing percussion instruments and instrumentalists Fader and Granados also singing, with “Anda Jaleo,” by Lorca and singer La Argentinita, as the zesty encore.
For its Spring Gala, NYFOS salutes the Gershwins with “George & Ira,” at the Racquet & Tennis Club, 370 Park Avenue, on May 13. Bryce Pinkham, Laura Osnes, Lauren Worsham, Tony Yazbeck, and Kate Davis are the featured guest performers. Visit www.nyfos.org/gala for tickets. Save these dates for NYFOS’ next season at Merkin Hall, 129 West 67th Street: October 16 for “Lyrics by Shakespeare,” with Naomi Louisa O’Connell, Matt Boehler, Kathleen Chalfant, Barrett and Blier; November 19 for music from Marc Blitzstein’s “No for an Answer” and Kurt Weill’s “Silbersee” (Silverlake); February 18, 2020 for “Taint Nobody’s Business if I Do: Songs from Gay Harlem,” music of Strayhorn, Porter Grainger, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and “Ma” Rainey; and March 17 for “The Art of Pleasure,” featuring Caramoor’s 2020 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars in music by Montsalvatge, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jonathan Dove, Tom Lehrer, and others. Visit www.nyfos.org
for further information.