New York Festival of Song gets Freudian, from Mahler to Lehrer

Wed Nov 12, 2014 at 12:59 pm
Soprano Janai Brugger performed at the New York Festival of Song Tuesday night. Photo: Carli Kadel

Soprano Janai Brugger performed at the New York Festival of Song Tuesday night. Photo: Karli Cadel

Entertainment though elucidation: that could easily be the motto for the New York Festival of Song. Their concerts are always a pleasure, and underneath the charms of the music and the singing is a foundation of fascinating, open-ended ideas. The music explores serious subjects, and the experience is serious fun.

Credit goes to artistic director Steven Blier, along with associate artistic director Michael Barrett, who cofounded NYFOS in 1988. Tuesday night’s concert at Merkin Hall, titled “Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud’s Vienna,” had Blier’s stamp all over it, from the witty and intelligent program notes to the charm of his introductions from the stage.

And while Freud has fallen out of fashion, at least in psychiatry, his cultural milieu endures in music. This was immediately gripping in the first of several miniature stories that Blier programmed within the concert, the opening pair of songs from Gustav and Alma Mahler, what Blier called “A Famous Patient and His Wife.”

In one of the most notable conjunctions of aesthetic life, Mahler had a four-hour walking analysis with Freud in 1910, something that saved his marriage from dissolving due to Alma’s affair with Walter Gropius. One imagines that Freud learned as much about the mind from the composer, as vice-versa.

Baritone John Brancy sang Erinnerung, an infrequently heard song from Mahler’s early maturity, and soprano Janai Brugger responded with Alma’s Laue Sommernacht, which has lovely harmonic motion and a well-made melody. This came off as a dialogue between two real people, not sets of abstract, poetic feelings, and set the concert’s satisfying dialogue with the past.

Blier, who suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy, is a capable and sensitive accompanist, but played less under the singers—soprano Janai Brugger and baritone John Brancy—than he has in recent years. Barrett accompanied much of the program, with verve. Where Blier works his magic is primarily behind the scenes.

He is one of the great vocal coaches, and what makes him so is his emphasis on meaning and expression. Blier works with his singers to help them find a personal connection to everything they sing. In concert, this means that not only are the songs beautifully sung—a given with NYFOS—but rendered with a clarity and spontaneity that are unique. There is the usual, objective sense of bearing witness to worthwhile music, and a subjective argument over and advocacy for what the composer was trying to say.

The inner stories continued in thematic groupings—”Eros and Thanatos,” “The Interpretation of Dreams,” “Fathers and Aftermath”—through songs from Wolf, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alexander Zemlinsky, Strauss and Schoenberg. These songs were about wandering the internal pathways of the mind and heart, consciously and (of course) sub-consciously, and about discovering unexpected and unsettling things, beautiful and otherwise.

Brancy, Brugger and Wolf left the deepest impression. Both singers were technically superb, and their personal qualities were ideal for the program; Brancy has an easy virility to his singing that gave even the most sentimental lines an unselfconscious naturalism, while Brugger’s velvety voice possesses a mezzo color that carries the intimacy these songs needed, speaking directly to the listener.

Both singers were deep inside the music, communicating vibrantly. Familiar music like Wolf’s Bedeckt mich mit Blumen, sung by Brugger, sounded fresh and sharp. Brugger also sang Wolf’s Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens, with its lascivious Eduard Möricke poem about a young bride’s sexual awakening, with charm and humor. Brancy sang the composer’s impressionist Nachtzauber, and was mesmerizing.

As involving was his performance of Und hat der Tag all’ seine Quai, from Zemlinsky, a grown-up lullaby that opened the “Interpretation of Dreams” Sequence. This concluded with the same composer’s Das bucklichte Männlein, a weird and ultimately touching fable from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Korngold’s colorful Die Geniale and Das Heldengrab am Pruth had more weight than one expects from his music, while the decadent sensationalism of Strauss’ Frühlingsfeier was balanced by the evocative mysteries of his Ophelia-Lieder, in which Brugger shaded her voice with intense and eerie colors.

For much of the audience, the biggest surprise and most unexpected pleasure were Schoenberg’s cabaret songs, Der genügsamer Liebhaber and the Aria from The mirror of Arcadia, with a text from Emanuel Schikaneder. The former is about a man with a “shiny, bald head,” on top of which his girlfriend likes to place her “black pussy-cat,” while the latter, sung by both Brancy and Brugger, is a joyful paean to lust.

The encore, Tom Lehrer’s Alma, cemented the idea that, at least in Freud’s Vienna, some dreams could come true.

NYFOS presents “Harlem Renaissance” on December 9.

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