Maestro Steven Blier has the Midas touch; everything he touches turns to gold. As Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, as pianist and arranger, as performer and raconteur, he never fails to delight. Last night's program at Merkin Hall was a case in point. Few of us have paid attention to the music remembered from college days but Mr. Blier paid attention to the music of Jacques Brel and Charles Trénet from a half-century ago. It is difficult to believe that this youthful wizard is celebrating 40 years of performing onstage.
To those in the audience who delighted in this music in their youth, the recital was a delicious exercise in nostalgia. To those who were not familiar with these songs, it was a revelation. Mr. Blier at the piano was joined by two singers, the charming and VERY French mezzo Marie Lenormand and Philippe Pierce, a tenor with matinée idol good looks. To complete the party, there was accordionist Bill Schimmel and guitarist Greg Utzig who also played the banjo and an instrument resembling an electronic lute.
The program opened with Mr. Pierce singing Brel's "La Valse à Mille Temps". Maestro Blier introduced each and every song with an interesting piece of information. Apparently, Brel was quite a rebel and was not immediately accepted but eventually won adoration both in France and in the United States. It is hard to imagine not being won over by this powerful song that grows in speed, emotion and dissonance until the singer becomes quite breathless.
The two singers were most enjoyable in "Les Paumés du Petit Matin" a duet about dissipated youth, trust fund kids who sleep all day and party all night. (Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.) For Ms. Lenormand's "Rosa", we learned the meaning of the cryptic words. An amusing duet "Les Bourgeois" followed in which we saw an event from the point of view of some rude youths and some staid lawyers. "Madeleine" is a sad tale of a man who waits every night for a woman who never shows up. Many of the songs were sad and dealt with disappointed love. Ms. Lenormand's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" revealed heartbreaking neediness. The duet "Le Diable" in which the devil enjoys all the wars, bombs on train tracks, materialism and economic inequality. It sounded rather contemporary, n'est-ce-pas?
The Trénet songs were rather more upbeat. "J'ai Ta Main" had a swingy accompaniment but "Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir" revealed the songwriter's loneliness. "J'ai Connu de Vous" had a jazzy score and "J'ai Mordu Dans le Fruit de la Vie" referenced Mr. Trénet's sly admission of homosexuality. The familiarity of the melody in "La Mer" delighted the audience and "Grand-maman C'est New York" made everyone laugh. Apparently, when one dies and goes to heaven one learns that heaven is...New York! And indeed it is heaven when we have such wonderful music and such superb performers to bring it to life.
(c) meche kroop