|Spencer Myer, Leah Wool, Michael Slattery, Caitlin Lynch, Sidney Outlaw
"A Banner Bicentennial" marked the 200th birthday of our national anthem which has been sung and celebrated, revered and bowdlerized, during its entire existence. Its birth, according to Paul Sperry, was a drinking song in 18th c. England. Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics 200 years ago to celebrate America's victory in the "Second War of Independence" from Great Britain. It took a century to be proclaimed as our national anthem and was established as such by a Congressional bill in 1931. Prior to that time the melody was co-opted by abolitionists and the temperance movement.
But last night at the gloriously historic Federal Hall, this anthem received some mighty royal treatment as five artists gifted the audience with an evening of American song, produced by 5BMF (Five Boroughs Music Festival) and The Casement Fund Song Series.
As if the entertainment were not sufficient, Paul Sperry contributed interesting tidbits of information. Until the end of the 19th c. there was no separation between popular song and "classical" song. We could just visualize clusters of happy folk, friends and family gathered around the piano.
Today, popular music is heard on computers and boom boxes and other electronic devices and we sit in concert halls to hear live "art song" recitals with the very best songs originating from Germany, where all the great poets came from--and a set or two of contemporary American "art songs" that we rarely desire to hear again. Sadly, no one sings anymore!
So, it was a great pleasure to hear an evening of American songs culled from all genres with no distinctions made. Of course, the evening began and ended with "The Star Spangled Banner". (Well, there were two fine folk songs that REALLY began the program but please allow us a bit of literary license.)
Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool sang the 1814 version, complete with an additional stanza that we'd never heard before. The challenging high notes were so easefully reached that for a moment we thought Ms. Wool was a soprano but, as it turns out, she is a wonderful full-voiced mezzo with a stunning upper register.
The program closed with the quartet of fine singers in thrilling harmony singing an arrangement by Ross W. Duffin. Versatile pianist Spencer Myer, so excellent in his partnering of the singers, had a chance to shine as a soloist when he played Charles Grobe's "The Stars and Stripes Forever: Brilliant Variations on the Star-Spangled Banner, Op. 490". This was a mid-19th c. salon piece and required some fleet and fancy fingering. We had a giggle when strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" made their appearance.
Our taste favored the folk songs and spirituals on the program. Baritone Sidney Outlaw knocked our socks off with an a capella performance of "City Called Heaven". There was such conviction involved that we couldn't help but share the depth of his feelings. That his baritone is so mellow and caressing just added to the aural pleasure.
Caitlin Lynch's bright and shining soprano did justice to Bernstein's "Simple Song" from his Mass. In a lighter vein, she charmed us with Cole Porter's "Please Don't Make Me Be Good" from Fifty Million Frenchmen.
Tenor Michael Slattery dazzled us with Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom", accompanying himself on an Indian instrument related to the harmonium. His fine vibrato and tender tone were perfect for Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" (made famous in our own time by Marilyn Horne) and in Bernstein's "Maria" from West Side Story. His high notes seem to float in the air above his head.
Ms. Wool, so perfect throughout her entire range, was just as fine in Cole Porter's "So in Love" from Kiss Me Kate as she was in the more academic material. Allowing each of the four singers to sing songs that they loved was likely responsible for the intensity of involvement that we experienced. That is the essence of a fine song recital--it's all about communication. The more involved the singer is, the more feeling is communicated to the audience; we leave such a recital feeling fulfilled.
As encore we were treated to the quartet of singers harmonizing in Barber's "Sure on This Shining Night" with beautiful lyrics by James Agee. In spite of the rain that began just as we left Federal Hall, we knew that we had experienced "a shining night".
(c) meche kroop