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, February 19, 2014


Steven Blier, Michael Barrett, Dina Kuznetsova, Michael Kaiser
Who else but Steven Blier and the New York Festival of Song would undertake the assembling, translating and performing of Polish songs that we have never heard before and may never have the opportunity to hear again?  When we think of Polish music we think of Chopin whose name wasn't even mentioned until the encore.  More about that later.

Two international opera stars graced the stage, Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova and tenor Joseph Kaiser.  We were surprised to learn that neither speaks Polish; you could have fooled us!  It is a language more difficult than even Czech and it was a labor of love to learn to sing it as much as it was a labor of love to get the songs translated.

Mr. Blier's wry comment after the first two songs was "The Agony and the Ecstasy in reverse order".  Indeed!  The first song by Stanislaw Moniuszko, the 19th c. nationalistic composer of song and opera (the Schubert of Poland),  was sung passionately by Mr. Kaiser accompanied by two pianos (Mr. Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett).  It was about the ecstasy of uncontrolled love.

The next song, Edward Pallasz' 20th c. lament by the Virgin Mary, here called "The Mother of Mankind", was indeed about the special agony felt by a mother over her son's torment.  Ms. Kuznetsova sang it with deep feeling and exquisite dynamic control; there was a special thrill as her voice bloomed in the upper register.  Troubling harmonies were handled by the two pianists.

Four songs by Grazyna Bacewicz followed, also from the 20th c.  Ms. Kuznetsova's performance of "Boli mnie glowa" (pardon our Polish) or "I have such a headache" injected vocal and gestural variety into the simple repetition of the phrase.  It was the only touch of humor in the program.  Bacewicz' song "The magpie" gave Mr. Barrett a chance to show off his skills.

Mr. Kaiser imbued "Keep speaking to me" by Mieczyslaw Karlowicz with a lovely delicate sound as the poet asks his lover to keep speaking as the breeze bears her words across a great distance, like a caress.  Ms. Kuznetsova sang the gorgeous melodies of the composer's "To the grieving maiden" as the poet reassures the girl that her sorrow will give way to joy as Spring returns.

Seven Yiddish Songs, Opus 13 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg followed.  The introduction was a playful duet sung on "La, la" while the postlude, also sung on "La, la" was painful.  The five actual songs with words comprised four delightful childhood songs with the fifth being the sorrowful song of an orphan; in this song the bitterness and anger were expressed by Mr. Blier's piano. Perhaps Mr. Weinberg seized upon Peretz' poetry since he lost his own family in the holocaust.

More songs by Moniuszko followed.  We loved the pastoral melody of "Evening Song" sung by Mr. Kaiser and Ms. Kuznetsova's performance of "The spinner".  Mr. Blier's piano created the spinning background as Ms. K. told the tale of a young maiden spinning and remembering her departed lover until....a new lover comes along and the thread of her memory breaks.

Composing in the early 20th c., Karol Szymanowski's music was influenced by Wagner and by his travels in foreign lands.  It is both exotic and erotic.  We enjoyed his opera King Roger in Santa Fe and was delighted to learn more about him and his growth as a composer.  His late period songs returned to a more folky style and we loved Mr. Kaiser's performance of "Neigh, my horse".

The final work on the program was "The Piper's Song" by Ignacy Jan Paderewski.  Adam Mickiewicz' text touched us; the piper will stop roaming and singing his lighthearted songs when he finds the person who senses the sorrow underneath; then they will share some tears and he will go no farther.

And now for the Chopin encore.  Well, not exactly.  You see, as Mr. Blier explained, Ira Gershwin once set lyrics to Chopin's E- major Etude.  Mr. Blier composed music for the verse and played both verse and Chopin's "refrain".  Now how often does one get a treat like that?!  Is there anything Mr. B. can't do??

© meche kroop

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