We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Michael Barrett and Steven Blier
When one thinks of art song and its champions, the two people one thinks of first are Marilyn Horne and Steven Blier.  In January we had an intense exposure to Marilyn Horne who initiated On Wings of Song and last night we had an equally exciting but somewhat different exposure at Steven Blier's 25-year-old New York Festival of Song.  Mr. Blier's offerings are not just vocal, they are also educational.  Just reading the program notes for "Song of the Midnight Sun" gave us a new appreciation for the vocal music of the Scandinavian countries; filled with interesting facts about each composer and the influences upon which their music rests, we felt as if we were exposed to a valuable academic dissertation.

When Mr. Blier speaks, however, his delightful good humor shines through and we get a different sort of appreciation; but when the four Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars, fresh from a 12-day mentorship at Caramoor, take the stage, we gain our appreciation experientially.  In its fifth year, the program honors the memory of Caramoor trustee Terrance Schwab and is funded by an endowment in his name.

New Yorkers are not often exposed to Scandinavian songs.  From time to time we hear one of Grieg's more well-known songs but tonight we got to hear songs written by Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Finns.  We heard Stenhammar, Grieg, Nielsen, de Frumerie, Linde, Rautavaara, Nystroem, Nordqvist, Rangström, Sibelius, Larsson, Sjöberg and Alfvén.  You may be forgiven if these names are unfamiliar.  Although the composers are all different, our ears searched for a common thread.  What all the songs demonstrated was a love of melody, even in the more modern songs. These guys really loved writing for the voice!  We also noted a spare texture in the piano with a couple of exceptions.  But the themes of nature and love are held in common with German lieder.

The program opened with a quartet singing Wilhelm Stenhammar's "I Seraillets have".  What could be lovelier than the beautiful blending of four well-trained voices?  Celebrated soprano Julia Bullock, beautiful Scandinavian-looking mezzo Sarah Larsen, tenor Theo Lebow making his NYFOS debut and award-winning baritone Tobias Greenhalgh composed the quartet.

The program was divided into songs about nature, about night, about the sea, about youth and age and about a "ruined" maid.  Grieg's "Våren" was our personal favorite in the nature category.  The spare texture in the piano writing allowed Mr. Greenhalgh's voice to shine with all its resplendent colors and dynamic variety.  The poet wrote of the pleasures of Spring, the sorrow of thinking it might be his last Spring, and the resignation of knowing that everything ends.  Mr. Greenhalgh captured all these emotions.

Our favorite song in the section about night was Alfvén's "Skogen sover" in which Mr Lebow expressed the tender sentiments with polished phrasing and aching melisma.  We noted some dense and rippling accompaniment in Sibelius' "Var det en dröm?" which was less spare than some of the other songs.

In the section about the sea, Michael Barrett, Associate Artistic Director of NYFOS, took over the piano duties in Nystroem's "Ute i skären" and produced a sound both mystical and impressionistic.

In the section about youth and age, Ms. Bullock evinced a moving depth of feeling as she reminisced about childhood memories in connection with a letter from mother.

The four songs in the "ruined maid" section almost became a cycle, although written by three different composers.  Sibelius' "Im Feld ein Mädchen singt" Mr. Greehalgh sang powerfully against a spare piano and in "Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote", also by Sibelius, Ms. Larsen did the mother-daughter drama proud; the mother was concerned and suspicious while the daughter was at first dissembling and later distraught; it was a fine piece of storytelling.

Ms. Bullock's performance of "En svane" was brilliant, conveying the unutterable sadness of a secret love that only revealed itself at the time of death.  Had Mr. Blier not explained the metaphor, we might have continued to believe that the swan was just a swan.

Sending the audience home happy was the result of the encore, the quartet from Act II of Sondheim's "A Little Night Music".
We could not have imagined a better program.  We listened, we learned, we thrilled to the sound of four fine singers and the piano of Mr. Barrett and Mr. Blier.  We want to hear those songs again on future recital programs!

(c) meche kroop

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