New York Festival of Song celebrates the timeless art of Ned Rorem at 90
In a year bursting with important anniversaries in the classical world, a quiet and more intimate fanfare was sounded Tuesday evening as New York Festival of Song presented a concert in celebration of Ned Rorem’s recent 90th birthday (October 23).
NYFOS founders Michael Barrett and Steven Blier curated an evening at Merkin Concert Hall that programmed Rorem songs alongside works by those that inspired him, his mentors, lovers, and even a rival (Samuel Barber).
Blier, an extraordinary musician and personality, provided most of the spoken anecdotes and quotes – always revealing, humorous, and utterly sincere. It was a small, but illuminating glimpse into the colorful yet enigmatic and under-the-radar personality that has characterized New York City and the American musical landscape for more than half a century. Joined by mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey and baritone Andrew Garland, the evening read like a simple, adoring love letter.
The program, neatly organized into sections, opened with a song from Rorem’s Evidence of Things Not Seen, a substantial cycle that was written in collaboration with NYFOS for his 75th birthday. Rorem’s deep intellect and thoughtful approach to his art are made manifest by his chosen texts – Theodore Roethke, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, and Robert Frost were a few of the writers represented Tuesday evening. Where singers Lindsey and Garland paid their highest respects to the composer was in their attention to the texts, and ability to communicate transparently.
Kate Lindsey is a remarkable presence with a voice that seems to have limitless colors and depth. At times, as in Poulenc’s C, there was a breathy, covered quality to her voice that was idiomatically Gallic and mesmerizing. She didn’t shy from a piercing straight tone (Rorem’s A Specimen Case), and she knew just when to sing simply without adornment or heaviness, as in the heartbreaking Sonnet XLIII: What lips my lips have kissed by Bernstein.
What Lindsey and Andrew Garland have in common is an interpretive honesty that immediately draws you in. In Marc Blitzstein’s Emily (The Ballad of the Bombardier), Garland’s openness elevated the text from simple and longing to almost grief-stricken. His ability to captivate was especially evident in story-telling songs such as these. Garland’s voice can be deeply stirring and operatic, but he is no stranger to art song, having released a recent recording of song cycles by contemporary American composers. And it was often in the simpler moments, such as Theodore Chanler’s These, My Ophelia, where the audience was most hushed and engaged.
As a parting birthday gift, a dozen other singers appeared in all corners of the hall to sing, in unison, one of Rorem’s most beloved songs – Early in the Morning. As Rorem stood watching in front of the stage, and as a few tears were spotted in the audience, it became clear what all the fuss is about: underneath the words, craft and intellect, his music is unequivocally beautiful.
The next NYFOS program will be “Cubans in Paris, Cubans at Home” which will be presented 8 p.m. Dec. 3 at Reston Community Center and 8 p.m. Dec. 5 at Merkin Concert Hall. nyfos.org; 646-230-8380.