NY Song Fest Returns With Style, Once Again Stretching Boundaries

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Pianist Steven Blier, mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms, baritone Johnathan McCullough, mezzo-soprano Maggie Reneé, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb, and tenor Paul Appleby performing “How Can I Keep from Singing?” (Photos by Cherylynn Tsushima)

NEW YORK — New York Festival of Song, founded by pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier in 1988, occupies a unique and valuable niche in the city’s vocal music ecosystem. The group has dedicated itself to the exploration of the song form and the recruitment, training, and deployment of its gifted interpreters. The festival also enjoys long-standing collaborations with institutions like Juilliard and the San Francisco Opera Center.

Intimate and, thanks to Blier’s informative and distinctly Upper West Side-flavored patter, gemütlich, the concerts usually held at Merkin Hall present both familiar favorites of the recital and music theater repertory and sample novelties of all sorts, pushing back the linguistic, stylistic, and generic boundaries of the concept “concert song.” The list of patrons and the high proportion of professional “insiders” in attendance signal that it’s a well-connected enterprise. Yet risk-taking is part of the organization’s DNA.

The troupe returned to active performance Nov. 16 with a varied, energetic show called “And…We’re Back!” probing the theme of returns to normality before a crowd palpably happy to be there. Blier is now flying solo; as he explained, during the pandemic Barrett moved full-time to Utah, where he runs the Moab Music Festival. Perhaps for that reason, and also due to the fact that preparations for the event must largely have taken place via Zoom, not all the selections had piano accompaniment. The program’s two male singers both took up guitars, as did the guest Rupert Boyd. Plus, percussionist Leonardo Granados added Latin American coloration in numbers from Brazil and Cuba.

Dummer Leonardo Granados, pianist Steven Blier, and mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn bottoms offering the Cuban-rhythmed “Lamento esclavo.”

Three of the singers, tenor Paul Appleby and mezzo-sopranos Amanda Lynn Bottoms and Rebecca Jo Loeb, are festival veterans. Baritone Johnathan McCullough, trained like Bottoms at Curtis, was new to the enterprise, and mezzo-soprano Maggie Reneé had only worked with the organization in its outreach programs at Juilliard. It proved a good team for this celebratory event. Appleby has had a prominent fall season, with an excellent Liederabend with pianist Conor Hanick at the Armory in September and stellar work as David in the Metropolitan Opera’s run of Die Meistersinger. He has few peers in Lieder among his contemporaries and is one of the world’s best Davids. His work here was at top form in his delivery of Schubert’s contemplative “Abendlied für die Entfernte” and Mahler’s transcendent “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” both given with subtle verbal inflections and nicely blended sound.

Blier has said, and said once again here, that  early exposure to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s mannered style turned him away from Lieder. And, indeed, Schubert’s strophic song found his playing wanting in precision and grace; not even fine musicians do everything equally well. He was on much surer form playing the Mahler — much more his kind of song emotionally — and weighted his tone with the same sensitivity as Appleby. The tenor showed himself a good guitarist accompanying Loeb in her supremely stylish and evocative account of Joni Mitchell’s haunting, self-critical “Cactus Tree” (from 1968’s Songs to a Seagull) and harmonized with her skillfully. But in Brad Mehldau’s 2006  “Love Sublime,” in which I found the pianistic writing more compelling than the word setting, Appleby sounded like a first-rate classical singer faring pretty well rather than a born jazz singer.

The other Lied performance was by rising mezzo-soprano Reneé, whom Blier encountered at Juilliard. She’s not quite as finished an interpreter as her older companions in this venture. Brahms’ “Meine Liebe ist grün” was a bit generalized, like a very good conservatory graduation recital performance. But her complicated, dark-hued voice and fine musical instincts showed much promise. Reneé proved outstanding in an arrangement she and Blier had worked out via Zoom of Chaim Barkani’s beautiful, folkish “At telchi basadeh” (“You will walk in the field”) to Lithuanian Jewish poet Leah Goldberg’s unexpectedly optimistic 1940 poem. With special lushness in her lower register, she caught the haunting simplicity of mood and phrased beautifully, right through the concluding vocalise.

Tenor-guitarist Paul Appleby and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb channeled Joni Mitchell in “Cactus Tree.”

As artists, Loeb and Bottoms really do straddle the classical and music theater worlds with a degree of success few young — or mature, for that matter — singers attain. Both have superb presence and apt command of stance and gesture, and both can subtly adjust their voice production to a variety of genres. As noted, Loeb did remarkable justice to the special task of capturing Joni Mitchell’s transitions among registers. Singing well, she captured the droll, Weill-tinged arc of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s 1975 survivor anthem “Ready to Begin Again,” knowing when and how much to bend notes and lines. Brazilian song has become a specialty of Loeb’s, and with Boyd and Granados, she nailed the seductive rhythms of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de saudade,” showing excellent control in subtle dynamic contrasts. 

Bottoms started the program strongly with Frankie Laine’s Post-WW II “We’ll Be Together Again,” demonstrating a knowledge of pop tradition but also the ability to phrase in a more contemporary mode. She and Blier excelled in Belize-born, London-based Errollyn Wallen’s harmonically adventurous “My feet may take a little while,” which the pianist introduced as a blues but struck me as more of a ballad. Bottoms and Granados put over with flair the lilting Cuban rhythm of Eliseo Grenet’s 1932 “Lamento esclavo” — in text a spiritual lament, but musically more evoking a celebratory proclamation of eventual liberation.

Amanda Lynn Bottoms and Johnathan McCullough (standing), and Paul Appleby and Rebecca Jo Loeb performing “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” from Sondheim’s ‘Follies.’

McCullough led off accompanying himself on the guitar with an utterly idiomatic and straightforwardly charming account of Glen Hansard’s ballad “Song of Good Hope.” With John Musto’s 1986 “Litany,” on this first hearing I liked the striking, contemplative chords of the prelude and postlude (hauntingly sounded by Blier) better than the actual sung portion, which didn’t illuminate the Langston Hughes text. But McCullough sang it with good intonation and a sound he could refine down from a full-tilt American Broadway baritone timbre to airiness. Both qualities helped him put over Cole Porter’s 1941 “Dream Dancing” vocally, but in terms of style, physical gesture as well as phrasing, the interpretation seemed “citationally 1940s” rather than lived-in. Overcutesy shtick can be this festival’s peccadillo, and the crowd loved it more than I did.

Same goes for the start of Follies’ “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” with Bottoms, Loeb, Appleby, and McCullough. The contrasting opening Young Ben and Phyllis/Young Buddy and Sally duets were rather overegged; yet when Sondheim brilliantly reprises them together, the precision of these four excellent musicians proved amazing, and beyond anything most Broadway performers could deliver. Finally, Blier and all five singers offered David Krane’s complex arrangement of Robert Lowry’s 19th-century Quaker hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The blend was excellent, though I felt more moved by the sentiments expressed, and by the concert’s general mood and success, than by the music itself.

Good to have the New York Festival of Song back. This year the troupe, which has recorded before, launches its own label, debuting in January with the release of a 2000 concert of 20th-century American songs featuring Blier and two expert singers, Stephanie Blythe and William Burden.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt 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.