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.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


Ho Jae Lee, Steven Blier, Benjamin Dickerson, Hannah Dishman, Jack Swanson, Christine Price

It comes as no surprise that Steven Blier (Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, collaborative pianist, educator, coach, recording artist, etc.) graduated from Yale with Honors in English Literature. His program notes are always invaluable and highly instructive. Furthermore, they are so well written that we find ourself wanting to quote directly from them instead of finding our own words. So, dear reader, when you see a phrase in quotes, please know exactly whom we are quoting, which surely beats plagiarizing. We hope the generous Mr. Blier will feel complimented.

The theme of last night's recital was Four Islands--comprising Ireland, Cuba, Madagascar, and Manhattan. Mr. Blier finds island dwellers to be "fundamentally different from our landlocked neighbors". Having been "under attack from outside enemies (we) must learn to protect ourselves from invasion".  Just think about that when you are trying to push through the throngs of Times Square to get to the theater!

The program opened with some Irish folksongs and regular readers will recall how taken we are with folk melodies. In "Siul A Ghra", soprano Christine Price and mezzo-soprano Hannah Dishman created some exquisite harmonies a cappella, even before Mr. Blier chimed in with a spare piano accompaniment. We haven't a clue what Gaelic is supposed to sound like but to our ears it sounded authentic. 

Ms. Dishman was then joined by baritone Benjamin Dickerson for a cute romantic ditty entitled "The Palatine's Daughter". From Mr. Blier's program notes, we learned that the Palatines were a German-speaking group who were forced out of their country by war in the early 18th c. and given asylum by England. Apparently they assimilated successfully, in this case through romance. The accompaniment by the flute of Marco Granados was lovely.

Let us skip over the song by Arnold Bax, a Brit who was as entranced by Ireland as was Victor Herbert, about whom we wrote last week.  But we won't skip without mentioning the powerful piano of Ho Jae Lee whose artistry on the piano is astonishing.

John Corigliano also set Irish folksongs and Ms. Price's clear and lovely soprano wove in and out of the fanciful line of the flute.

But the song from Ireland that captured our heart was Houston Collisson's "Eileen Og" which was given a charming and humor filled performance by tenor Jack Swanson, joined by Mr. Granados' flute. The song contained a very particular lesson for men who go a-courtin'.

The ship was ready to sail and off we went to Cuba where the "Spanish elements suppressed, resisted, slowly co-opted, and finally embraced the rhythms of the oppressed Afro-Cubans". Does that scenario sound familiar? Afro-Cubans were not freed from slavery until 1886 and yet, today, seem far more integrated than Afro-Americans.  Cuban music is a "grafting of Spanish elegance onto the complex throb of African rhythms".  (Wish we'd written that!)

It took four hands of piano (Mr. Blier and Mr. Lee) to give enough textural support to Mr. Swanson and Mr. Dickerson as they performed "Guarina", a lyrical serenade written by the untrained but gifted composer Sindo Garay.

Ms. Price, accompanied by Mr. Lee, excelled in Ernesto Lecuona's setting of "Quiero ser hombre", text by the Uruguayan feminist poet Juana Ibarbourou.

Cuba must stand among the nations of the New World which adapted the Spanish operetta known as zarzuela to their own use. Mr. Brier's droll explication added much to our enjoyment of "Aria de Matilde" from Jose Mauri's La Esclava. It was not the only piece to highlight difficult social issues like interracial romance, but it was one of the first.  Dark-skinned heroine (soprano) has dark-skinned lover (baritone) but gets seduced by aristocratic light-skinned man (tenor) gets pregnant and commits suicide. In this case, however, the aria was sung by a mezzo and Ms. Dishman sang it with lovely tone and depth of feeling.

The funniest song in Cuba must have been Emilio Grenet's "Tu no sab ingle" (sic) which sounds like a Spanish answer to ebonics. Mr. Dickerson (whom we have now heard in French, German, English, and Spanish) was hilarious lecturing his friend about his linguistic failure with American girls.

After the interval, we weighed anchor once more and set sail for Madagascar. The traditional Zulu melody, gloriously harmonized by Ms. Price, Ms. Dishman, and Mr. Swanson thrilled us with its strange words and interesting harmonies. 

However, as hard as we tried to like Maurice Ravel's Chansons Madecasses, we were unable to relate to the music. The French text of "Nahandove" and "Il est doux" was incredibly sensual which we readily picked up from Mr. Lee's piano and the delicacy of the cello, beautifully bowed by Nan-Cheng Chen. However, the vocal line did nothing for us and Mr. Dickerson's use of the music stand prevented us from feeling the connection we felt in the Zulu piece.

We were very happy to dock in Manhattan and Cole Porter's "I Happen to Like New York" perfectly expressed our sentiments. All four singers and all four hands on the piano were enlisted for this exciting final song with its punchy Anglo-Saxon rhymes.

But let us not omit the other wonderful songs in the Manhattan group. Ms. Price gave a galvanizing performance of "One Life to Live" from Kurt Weill's 1941 Lady in the Dark, in which she has a YOLO moment.  Ms. Dishman gave a highly convincing portrait of an auditioning actress in Jason Robert Brown's "When you Come Home to Me". (We sincerely hope that none of last night's artists ever have to endure such humiliation.)

Mr. Swanson sang an unpublished song by Irving Berlin, cut from the musical As Thousands Cheer. "Through a Keyhole" was considered too risque for its Depression-era Broadway and it certainly is filled with naughty innuendo which Mr. Swanson captured without exaggerating.  It was done just right.

As encore, we heard a composition by Villa Lobos based on the NewYork Skyline. 

It was a great cruise and we are glad to be home safe and sound to tell you all about it.

(c) meche kroop

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