New York Festival of Song opens with a variety of new theater music

Wed Feb 04, 2015 at 7:19 pm

Music of Adam Guettel was performed as part of the opening program of the New York Festival of Song.

The New York Festival of Song is one of only a handful of organizations that straddles the sometimes fuzzy line between contemporary classical music and Broadway melody. The “NYFOS Next” performance on Tuesday at the National Opera Center on Seventh Avenue presented a colorful variety of songs, styles and forms, with works (all premieres or near-premieres) by composers both established and unheralded.

The program opened with five songs by George Steel, known lately as the last General Manager of New York City Opera. The five are selections from a promising but as-yet untitled work in progress, which the composer describes as a coming-home musical.

There is a bright, refreshing sonority in Steel’s writing. The second of three songs for soprano, “There’s You” recounts the protagonist’s time spent in Paris. Steel moves ably here between a candied sound and something slightly more tart, his melody taking an indulgent, smoky turn on the line “No regrets for a dalliance or two.” Meredith Lustig sang with a lemony tone, ringing especially clear in her upper range.

Steel’s wit came through in the first of two songs for baritone, “Fight Song of ‘49,” which he called “confetti of every bad song in the Yale songbook.” Indeed, the playfully mish-mashed “Let long years find us unchanged,/ Integer vitae,/ Though time and chance have estranged,/ She’s the belle of Sigma Chi” pokes fun at Porteresque collegiate jingoism; musically, Steel’s writing here is not so much imitation as hommage with a twist.

Jonathan Estabrooks tackled this number with aplomb, capturing the “rah-rah” spirit of the song in his exuberant singing. The more sober “How does it feel?” gave us a better sense of the baritone’s voice, crisp and cedary, with a hint of a growl down low. John Musto made for a sensitive, clear accompanist.

Originally commissioned as a graduation present for an eighteen-year-old baritone, Three Vernacular Songs by Gabriel Kahane showed Estabrooks’s range, from brimming excitement in “Dream Job” to snide humor in “Canada” to misty dreaming in “First Time, Long Time.” Kahane’s writing has a liquid glow, murked up here and there with judicious use of dissonance.

Juantio Becenti is a young Navajo composer from Utah. Michael Barrett, Associate Artistic Director of NYFOS, related that Becenti’s ambition is to write a Navajo mass, but on Tuesday we heard a single song, the composer’s first attempt at writing for the human voice. “The Obsidian Morning” opens with fractured chords at the very top of the keyboard, spindling down gradually. The sonority of the music is mostly cold, and Becenti employs a great deal of intoned spoken text to emphasize that eerie quality, but at times the landscape fleshes out and becomes almost impressionistic. Becenti’s vocal line tends to reach towards individual top notes, dropping down to regain strength before surging up again, occasionally finding relief in stretches of lyricism. Ilana Davidson’s velvet tone and collected presence were a calming counterweight to the music’s dramatic nervousness.

Closing the program were four songs by the talented composer and lyricist Adam Guettel, author of, among other things, the acclaimed 2003 musical The Light in the Piazza. “There Go I,” from his upcoming musical adaptation of The Days of Wine and Roses, showed more of his eloquent voice, sweet but melancholy, hazy with pastel colors. Steven Blier, NYFOS’s Artistic Director, played a vibrant accompaniment to Lustig, who sounded more warmed up in this selection, showing a flowing, full-bodied tone.

Guettel’s other offerings, though, numbers from the recently workshopped Millions, were surprisingly unfulfilling. “Childish Things” and “Find Me,” though admirably sung by the clear-voiced boy soprano Luca Padovan, felt simplistic and saccharine compared to his other work, giving in to the temptation to write “down” to a young singer.

The song that left the strongest impression of the evening was Jonathan Dove’s “O Swallow, Swallow,” a setting of a section of of Tennyson’s The Princess. It opens with a fluttering shimmer in the piano that becomes increasingly virtuosic to match the rising intensity of the poetry, sounding in the final verse like something out of a Brahms concerto. Leann Osterkamp’s playing was luminous, and and the baritone Theo Hoffmann was formidable, his smooth, rich tone sounding by turns heroic, sighing, and passionate.

The “NYFOS Next” concert series continues February 10 at the National Opera Center with music by Paul Moravec, James Primrosch, Christopher Theofanidis, and Paola Prestini.

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