On February 20, at Merkin Hall, at New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) program “Hyphenated American,” three pianists—Artistic Director Steven Blier, Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett, and Leann Osterkamp; three singers—soprano Amy Owens, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Urquiola, and baritone Jesse Blumberg; and a violist—Tien-Hsin (Cindy) Wu—offered, with commitment, music by four composers—Chinese-American—Bright Sheng, Persian-American—Daniel Sabzghabaei, Brazilian-American—Clarice Assad, and Puerto Rican—Roberto Sierra—three of whom were present—representing immigrants—Sheng and Assad; a son of immigrants—Sabzghabaei, and an additional multi-cultural—Sierra, an aptly political choice, at a time when these groups have been under fire from bigotry at the top. That this effort made for fine music-making as well almost goes without saying.
With Blier assisting, Urquiola lent a dark, haunting instrument to the world premiere of Assad’s sweet and subtly flowing “Prece” (Prayer) and to her song cycle “Elementos” (Elements, 2010), which contemplates the Earth, which protects and needs protecting, in “Flor de Lã: (Wool Flower); continues with “Fogaréu” (Fire), a furious, blazing evocation; “Maré de Água Viva” (a Tide of Living Water), which ebbs and flows, rises and falls, and resolves at the end, as love does; and “Esconderijo” (Hiding Place), in air as bustling and as regular as an opera or operetta waltz and just as florid.
Bright Sheng introduced his “Three Chinese Love Songs” (1988), the oldest of the works performed, dedicated to Leonard Bernstein, and high soprano Owens, Barrett, and Wu were the performers. The composer suggested that we listen for a quote from Bernstein and indeed Wu played, with understatement, a few notes of “Maria,” from “West Side Story,” at the end of one of the songs. The songs, sung in Chinese, were “Blue Flower,” soaring and swirling; “At the Hillside Where Horses Are Running,” a blithe and rushing love song; and “The Stream Flows,” limning the moonlight, mountains, and crystalline stream.
With Osterkamp at the Steinway, Sabzghabaei’s “At the Door” (2017), his setting of Sufi poet Rumi’s “Ghazal 436,” took Blumberg, as the Belovéd, and Owens, as the Lover, singing in Farsi, with the piano as the barricade, the door, between them, to extremes of vocal range and dynamics. Lyric baritone Blumberg sang in head tone and chest voice, Owens gave us stratospheric passages, the singers hummed and whooped in harmony and declaimed together, and Barrett intentionally dropped the piano lid, closed with a thud, to mark the conclusion of the piece.
The entire second half of the evening was devoted to the American premiere of Sierra’s “33 Sueños” (33 Dreams, 2018), his setting of poetry by Juan Carlos Garvayo, first performed in Spain, a weighty work and longest on the program. It featured Blumberg and Osterkamp, who quietly wove the spell that introduced the dreams, nightmares, and fantasies, in the “Proemio (invocación)” (Prologue—invocation). In the first dream, Blumberg was Captain Nemo, from Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” emphatically addressing his crew. “Cabo Sacratif” (Cape Sacratif), the third dream, was marked by the radiance of the dying light of sunset. The singer sang lightly in “Barzaj,” the Islamic equivalent of limbo. “Manual de espirales I” (Spiral Manual I), the fifth dream, swirled and whirled as turbulently as the air and water. “Eclipse,” the seventh dream, took us far into outer space, to Alpha Centauri. A “viaje por Albión” (journey through Albion, or England) was voiced lightly. The tenth dream, describing the ocean, was brisk and ended abruptly. Mythological figures, Apollo, Hermes, and Ariadne, and European men of music, Maurice Ravel and Alfred Brendel, populate other dreams. A mostly a cappella chant is Sierra’s choice for a sexually-charged dream. Spanish locales “Escorial” and “Granada” are settings for dreams. Some nightmares contain most horrifying imagery: “ella lamia el pelo/de una rata negra/portadora de la peste” (she licked the hair of a black rat, carrier of plague) and “volvió disfrazada de espiral,/de boca, de hormiga cabezuda, de ciempiés,/de mujer leprosa … Cuando la acaricié/mudó su piel áspera” (she returned disguised as a spiral, a mouth, a big-headed ant, a centipede, a leprous woman … When I caressed her, her rough skin sloughed off). Dream 31 is both sensual and spiritual. We return to the water in the final dreams.
NYFOS returns to Merkin Hall, 129 West 67th Street, for “Love at the Crossroads,” featuring Caramoor’s Schwab Vocal Rising Stars, on March 19 at 8 pm; welcomes Kate Soper and Friends to the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, 450 West 37th Street, on March 28 at 7:30 pm, and Laura Kaminsky and Friends to the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, on June 11 at 7:30 pm, as part of the NYFOS Next series; and repeats “Manning the Canon,” its celebration of gay themes in song, on June 22 at 7:30, at the LGBT Center. These last two represent NYFOS’ contribution to Stonewall 50. Visit www.nyfos.org
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