Fest Of Art Songs, Show Tunes, And ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’

New York Festival of Song co-founder Steven Blier and soprano Julia Bullock shared a moment at the festival’s 30th
anniversary celebration at Merkin Hall in New York. (Photos by Cherylynn Tsushima)
By David Shengold

NEW YORK – Pianists Steven Blier and Michael Barrett met in 1985 when working on a musical project about Marc Blitzstein. Both dynamic personalities with the ability to charm the public, they shared an interest in the song repertory that led to the establishment of one of the New York City vocal scene’s fundamental institutions: the New York Festival of Song. Blier wanted to unleash his energies on a New York equivalent of Graham Johnson’s London ensemble Songmaker’s Almanac: exploring art songs, theater songs, and (in appropriate context) popular songs.

NYFOS pianist-founders Michael Barrett, left, and Steven Blier.

Blier writes and speaks commentary in between thematically linked songs; he has figured out what will intrigue, inform, and amuse his core audience quite accurately and paces his remarks – and some wise shtick – accordingly. This season, NYFOS celebrates its 30th anniversary. A celebratory concert was held April 24 at Manhattan’s intimate Merkin Hall, the site of many (though by no means all) of this well-traveled organization’s concert appearances.

Over the decades at NYFOS performances Blier and Barrett have worked with a great many vocalists, established and otherwise. For this event, they called upon seven fine singers of varied temperament and experience, several of them trained at Juilliard. The local Wunderkind baritone Theo Hoffman – like soprano Julia Bullock, also on the program, clearly a nonpareil budding star when still at Juilliard – has had marked successes in his initial professional sallies. Hoffman began the evening with a remarkably beautiful and poised reading of Vaughn Williams’ “Orpheus with his lute.” The music-celebrating text stems from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, though may be an insertion by his contemporary, John Fletcher. Blier revealed that this ravishing song was the very first performed under NYFOS’ auspices 30 years ago.

Theo Hoffman and Lauren Worsham sang a duet from ‘The Cradle Will Rock.’

Hoffman phrased with clarity and insight and sustained a beautiful line – a tremendously accomplished and promising young singer. He joined the Fach-spanning soprano Lauren Worsham (gifted but here working too hard at character voice) in Blitzstein’s “Croon/Spoon” duet from The Cradle Will Rock – one of the American musical theater’s great backstage stories, if only the music were any good! Paul Appleby – an admirable, nuanced song interpreter – applied his pliable lyric tenor to Bolcom’s double-entendre-laden “I Knew a Woman.”

Antonina Chehovska performed Dvořák’s ‘Mé srdce často v bolesti.’

Slavic composers have figured significantly in NYFOS programming over the years, as the second quartet of songs testified. It was odd that neither Cyrillic nor (easier to arrange in print) transliterated Russian texts were provided in the program. In recent seasons, the Ukraine-born soprano Antonina Chehovska has been a frequent collaborator. Her soulful lyrical instrument has a pleasing richness that somewhat suggests the young Teresa Żylis-Gara. With verbal commitment and evident feeling, Chehovska tackled two non-chestnuts, Dvořák’s “Mé srdce často v bolesti” (“My heart often ponders”) and Rachmaninoff’s impressionistic “K nej” (“To her”). One characteristically “East Slavonic soprano” feature of her singing technically is that it can take a while in ascending intervals to achieve the desired pitch. But she’s a sensitive artist worth hearing – and with an interpretive range, as her later traversal of Granados’ impassioned “El mirar de la maja” demonstrated.

Tenor Paul Appleby, left, and baritone John Brancy.

The dynamic baritone John Brancy, a dedicated and winning recitalist, has performed Eugene Onegin onstage and sung Yeletsky’s aria in competitions; he’d be a natural for Iolanta’s Robert as well. His Russian as heard here, in Rachmaninoff’s dazzling “Spring Waters,” was clear and comprehensible without being perfect. For example, the verb in “Ona nas vyslala vperët” (“She sent us ahead”) altered to “vyshlala.” But the vocalism itself was strong, varied, and thrilling, and Barrett did a good if not virtuoso job on the composer’s fantastically show-offy keyboard writing.

Among the Slavic works, the ever-graceful Bullock voiced a lovely-toned and moving account of Grieg’s “En svane,” which, Blier explained, referred to a woman who had confessed her love for the composer on her deathbed – hence, in swansong. The Hispanic group also included Worsham, again pushing kewpie doll way too hard, in the 18th-century ditty “El dulce de América.” Appleby channeled charm in the light “Flor de Yumuri” and then joined Brancy as compelling, competing serenaders in the great Cuban light music composer Ernesto Lecuona’s 1938 “Como el arrullo de palmas.”

If I could have any of this concert for home listening, it would be the two mélodies that followed the break: Brancy bringing exquisite legato phrasing and dynamic subtlety to Fauré’s “En sourdine” and Appleby offering nuance and high tessitura (only one or two moments challenged him) in Poulenc’s “Tu vois le feu du soir” – as Blier reminded us, the composer’s favorite among his many songs. (I don’t agree that it’s his longest – surely that’s “La dame de Monte-Carlo.”)

Mary Testa, with Steven Blier on piano, sang Michael John LaChiusa’s ‘Heaven.’

On to theater-based fare. Hoffman savvily aced Sondheim’s arts-underwriting endorsement, “Talent.” Fats Waller’s “Ain’t-cha Glad” benefited from Bullock’s consummate style and charm, but didn’t especially flatter the registration of her luscious instrument. Next, Broadway’s indefatigable Mary Testa applied her naughtily fun professionalism and jazzy belt to Michael John LaChiusa’s very estimable 2006 song “Heaven” and rocked out a Hoagy Carmichael tune, “Old Buttermilk Sky.” Brancy showed a good straight-toned pop style, clean and with access to head voice, in Adam Guettel’s moving “Awaiting You.” Worsham gave a bravura (and manic) reading of Jonathan Larson’s “Hosing the Furniture,” a housewife mad scene owing generic debts to both “What a Movie!” and “Getting Married Today.”

NYFOS tends not to stress German Lieder, feeling that they are the one corner of the song literature that usually gets aired. But at the end of the printed program, Appleby and Barrett gave us a straightforward and utterly disarming “Die Taubenpost” – a work I know from previous NYFOS concerts that Blier feels exemplifies Schubert’s bravery in the face of early death. Blier segued immediately into one of his favorites, John Lennon’s “In My Life.” Bullock knew exactly what she was doing here, but Hoffman’s presentation felt too self-consciously “on,” with hands in pockets. Maybe one’s reaction to hands in pockets onstage is a generational thing; to me they are redolent of collegiate a cappella groups and connote a kind of Higher Insincerity. Has the hipster generation that admires the (to me) repellent Rat Pack redefined hands in pockets as something “authentic”? I plead ignorance.

Besides the two pianist-founders, the other fine instrumentalists on hand for the popular and Hispanic numbers were David Ostwald, tuba; Eric Borghi, percussion; and the versatile Jack Gulielmetti, guitar and banjo. Of course, there was an encore, after the singers presented Blier and Barrett with bouquets of 30 red roses apiece. The whole company went all in for Paul McCartney’s reggae-inflected “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.” Its reiterated gist? “Life goes on.” Let us hope as much for NYFOS on this auspicious anniversary.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne Festivals.