On March 19, at Merkin Concert Hall, the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), led by brilliant Founding Artistic Director Steven Blier and Founding Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett, welcomed Caramoor’s 2019 Schwab Vocal Rising Stars for a compelling program, billed as “Love at the Crossroads,” drawing on French chansons, Broadway, German Lieder, and more, to depict love in its varied phases and permutations. The fresh-voiced young singers were soprano Devony Smith, mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino, tenor Philippe L’Ésperance, and bass- baritone Erik Van Heyningen. Blier and Danny Zelibor, at the Steinways, shared pianistic duties.
Harmonizing mellifluously in four duets and a quartet, with the pianists alternating, L’Ésperance and Van Heyningen saluted Venus’ efforts in the realm of love in a romantic “Vénus,” by Camille Saint-Saëns; Smith and Perregrino meditated dulcetly on love’s awakening in composer Ernest Chausson and poet Honoré de Balzac’s “Réveil;” Smith and L’Ésperance got together in a lilting “Dans les ruines d’une abbaye,” of Gabriel Fauré and Victor Hugo; Perregrino and Van Heyningen celebrated the intoxication of their love; and the four singers quietly found the fabric of their passion starting to fray in Fauré and Armand Silvestre’s “Madrigal.”
The women and men demonstrated how differently they saw life and love as they recounted “Two Fairy Tales” of Stephen Sondheim, written for “A Little Night Music.” Smith and Devony, portraying Phyllis and Ben, tried, with great difficulty, to get together about getting away or even getting along, as they fell into sparring with each other, bickering as usual, in Sondheim’s “Country House,” written for “Follies.” In his jazzy monologue “A Miracle would Happen,” from Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” Van Heyningen probed unavailability as an aphrodisiac. Smith sang wistfully of not being on the same wavelength as her love in Vernon Duke and Ogden Nash’s “Just Like a Man,” sung by Bette Davis in “Two’s Company.” Perregrino offered a sentimental “I Will Walk with My Love” (“I once lov’d a boy, and a bold Irish boy”), appropriate to the St. Patrick’s Day season, as arranged by Gerald Moore. And the company parried and thrust in “Outside of That, I Love You,” a serious break up number, from Irving Berlin’s “Louisiana Purchase.”
The quartet of lovers began exploring other options with “Underneath the Abject Willow,” reciting W.H. Auden’s poem before singing Benjamin Britten’s almost Mozartian setting of it. Van Heyningen, backed by the others, convinced himself to stray in doo-wop number “Do it Yourself,” by Edward Kleban, lyricist for “A Chorus Line.” Perregrino and Smith made merry mischief in Marc Blitzstein’s “Modest Maid,” with a bawdy waltz beginning “I love lechery” as a chorus—the number was written for Beatrice Lillie, but ultimately adopted by Charlotte Rae. Armed with rackets, Van Heyningen and L’Ésperance seduced each other with “The Tennis Song,” replete with doubles entendres, by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, from “City of Angels.”
Two Romantic works served as prelude to the healing, with Blier and Zelibor playing Johannes Brahms’ Waltz in G# minor, Opus 39, Number Three, and L’Ésperance delivered a ravishing “Freundliche Vision,” of Richard Strauss and Otto Julius Bierbaum.
The couples made their peace with Franz Schubert’s “Licht und Liebe, Nachgesang,” with Smith and L’Ésperance expressing overwhelming love, with restraint, in Matthäus von Collin’s words, and with Brahms’ gently flowing “Es rauschet das Wasser,” with Perregrino and Van Heyningen singing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words. They were fully in concord when they all sang Schubert’s “Die Geselligkeit,” to Johann Karl Unger’s poetry, and closed with a haunting a cappella “Eco,” Manuel Oltra’s stark and unusual harmonies, feeling at once very old and fairly new, inspired by Federico García Lorca’s poem, and hinting at the next NYFOS program.
NYFOS returns to Merkin Hall, 129 West 67th Street, on April 24 for “García Lorca: Muse and Magician,” featuring soprano Corinne Winters, baritone Efrain Solis, and Blier and Barrett, in music by Poulenc, Montsalvatge, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Revueltas, and Lorca himself. NYFOS’ Spring Gala will celebrate George and Ira Gershwin on May 13 at the Racquet and Tennis Club, 370 Park Avenue, with Laura Osnes, Tony Yazbeck, and Kate Davis. For tickets and information, visit www.nyfos.org