New York Festival of Song serves up an American banquet

Wed Feb 22, 2017 at 11:49 am
Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Naomi Louisa O’Connell, Chelsea Shephard (standing), and Amy Owens perform Paul Bowles' "A Picnic Cantata" at New York Festival of Song Tuesday night. Photo; Karli Cadel

Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Naomi Louisa O’Connell, Chelsea Shephard (standing), and Amy Owens perform Paul Bowles’ “A Picnic Cantata” at New York Festival of Song Tuesday night. Photo; Karli Cadel

Dollar for dollar, a ticket to the New York Festival of Song remains one of the best buys on the New York classical scene. NYFOS concerts consistently feature imaginative concepts realized through the excellent taste of music directors Michael Barrett and Steven Blier.

The talent pool of singers in New York is broad and deep, and one rarely hears anything but excellent voices and polished techniques. But NYFOS singers are still a step above. With Blier’s coaching, singers achieve a deep, transparent understanding of the music, communicated with rare directness.

Tuesday night at Merkin Concert Hall, NYFOS delivered another example of its art. Blier, Barrett, and a squad of singers performed music from Paul Bowles, William Bolcom, and Gabriel Kahane. The program included two world premieres, and the themes enabled NYFOS to lay out the music like a restaurant menu, though an oddly shaped one: starting with the “Appetizers” of one song from each composer, the concert moved on to “Breakfast”—the premiere of Kahane’s Six Packets of Oatmeal, then “Dinner” in the form of the premiere of a suite of songs from Bolcom’s new opera, Dinner at Eight. Following the intermission came Bowles’ Picnic Cantata, or “Lunch.”

The appetizers not only introduced the composers and musicians, but the particulars of NYFOS’ art. After mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O’Connell sang Bowles’ gentle, lyrical “Heavenly Grass”—a setting of a Tennessee Williams poem—Blier introduced “Night Practice,” by Bolcom. The song is from a concentrated, tightly constructed poem about breathing as ritual, by May Swenson. Introducing it, Blier related that he told the singer, mezzo Amanda Lynn Bottoms, to think “Night Practice” as something she would do after making the mistake of looking at Facebook before she went to bed. What she delivered was not only lovely, but full of concentrated determination and meaning.

The textual meaning of Kahane’s “Half a Box of Condoms” was easy to parse, but soprano Chelsea Shephard gave it an extra measure of humor and humanity. The song is one of Kahane’s Craigslistlieder, a piece he made by setting random Craigslist ads to music. This one was was from a woman who, having discovered a cache of condoms, was looking for a partner to help her work her way through them before their expiration date.

That was affecting. Kahane, son of pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane, is a talented musician and songwriter, working in that intriguing and effervescent nexus of art song, pop music, and cabaret. Shepard’s performance had a sense of theater about it; she was not just singing a song but telling a story. That is the essence of NYFOS performances.

The premiere of Kahane’s Six Packets of Oatmeal was sung by the excellent baritone Jesse Blumberg, whose charismatic performances are often a NYFOS highlight. Blumberg was superb, fully into the character of this unsettling series of songs.

Kahane set a poem by Galway Kinnell, and the words and music conveyed the inner dialogue of an intensely lonely man, one who warns himself that eating oatmeal alone is not good for his mental health, so he conjures up breakfast partners, starting with John Keats. The poetry and especially the music, which swung gracefully back and forth between the delicate sounds of Michael Barrett plucking at the piano strings and standard harmonic and rhythmic structures, alternated between the protagonist’s awareness of his own loneliness and the unsettling growing madness with which he keeps himself company.

Bolcom’s Dinner at Eight was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and will premiere there March 11. The suite that NYFOS presented was less a distillation of the opera than a grab bag of various characters and situations, but it did give a good taste of the larger work.

The opera has a libretto by Mark Campbell and is adapted from the George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber Depression-era Broadway comedy. The songs in the suite, like “Lobster in aspic,” “Our town,” “You think you’re safe,” and “The party goes on,” introduced a handful of the main characters: Millicent Jordan (Shepard) is planning a dinner party and makes invitations over the phone; her husband Oliver (Blumberg) is facing financial ruin when he meets his old flame Carlotta (Bottoms); there is an ingénue (soprano Amy Owens) and a scorned woman (O’Connell).

The music is typical Bolcom, a mix of classical form and structure with the style of the great American Songbook—delightful and affecting, in other words. There was not enough music to tease out the drama, nor to hear from all the main characters from the original play, but it was sufficient for the singers to catch both the comedy and the pathos in the piece. Audiences in Minnesota appear to have something exciting to look forward to.

Lunch was the most substantial meal of all. A Picnic Cantata is a NYFOS staple and is an involving work with an unusual profile. Before he concentrated on writing literature, Bowles was a serious composer, studying with Henry Cowell and Copland and having his career boosted by Virgil Thomson. He produced a sizable amount of music, a lot of it quite fine. His vocal and theater music is among his best, showing an expected sensitivity to words along with a composer’s judgment and craft in how to apply musical emphasis.

James Schuyler wrote the libretto for this theater piece about four ladies out for a picnic lunch. The verse is full of brightly lit surrealisms—“Have you got a car? / You are in my car. / So we are.”—that Bowles set with a combination of plainspokenness, complex harmonies, and a gamut of musical styles (including boogie-woogie and some Stravinsky-isms) that created a fascinating ambiguity. His harmonies often floated free of the bass line, creating a dreamlike experience of simple ideas in odd juxtapositions.

Sung by all the women, and accompanied by both Barrett and Blier with percussionist Barry Centanni, the performance had the firm, bright clarity of a gem. The strange images—“lemon rind, steak and chips, a T-bone fish”—the expressions of banality and heartache, came through with the subjective expressivity and humanity that make NYFOS special.

NYFOS presents “Four Islands” 8 p.m. March 14, at Merkin Concert Hall

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