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.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


Mikaela Bennett, Joshua Blue, Jacob Scharfman, Andrew Munn, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Chelsea Shephard, and Dimitri Katotakis

Hosted by the gracious Henry of Henry's Restaurant, an Upper West Side institution, New York Festival of Song After Hours presented their final show of the season; it was a different sort of show, comprising songs of protest, but just right for the mood in NYC these days. We liberal arts loving folk feel like a persecuted minority with a great deal to worry about and against which to protest.

Our pianist/arranger/host Steven Blier picked up an idea by the highly esteemed young director Mary Birnbaum and immediately compiled a list of songs on the theme of protest. There was no trouble finding a cast of talented young singers from Juilliard's Department of Vocal Arts to perform the songs.

This was indeed a different kind of show. There was no "Sing for Your Supper" to get us all in a jolly mood and Mr. Blier eschewed his customary banter about each song. He told the audience that he wanted the songs to "speak for themselves". Many of the songs related to oppression in foreign countries, in which case the singer read the text in English.

The wildly talented Mikaela Bennett opened the program with Stevie Wonder's song "If It's Magic". We were not too sure about what was being protested, unless it is the carelessness of our culture in not taking care of the things that matter. Ms. Bennett is unceasingly eclectic and just when we were enjoying the soul and jazz inflected song, she burst forth with some operatic riffs that reminded us of her versatility.

Toward the end of the evening she sang Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" which clearly protested the despoiling of nature and the failure to appreciate our blessings until they are gone. Ms. Bennett's personality is larger than life and she put her own expressive stamp on this song which was written in the 60's, long before she was born.

Her duet with Amanda Lynn Bottoms was sung in Spanish and the two women harmonized beautifully in "Como la cigarra", a protest by lesbian poet/musician/writer Maria Elena Walsh against the military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983).

Ms. Bottoms had a couple fine solos as well. She sang "Song for Peace" from A Prayer to the New Year by the young Arabic/American composer Mohammed Fairouz, setting of text by Fadwa Tuqan. It was a prayer for peace in the Middle East and we were not sure whether Ms. Bottoms sang in Arabic or the original Aramaic.  In any event, it was lovely.

She was absolutely riveting in "Lamento esclavo" by the 20th c. Cuban composer Eliseo Grenet with text by Aurelio G. Riancho.

Also in Spanish was Leonard Bernstein's l977 setting of text by feminist Puerto Rico poet Julia de Burgos, from his work Songfest. Chelsea Shephard performed "A Julia de Burgos" with passion, revealing the strong core of a woman who has found it necessary to be outwardly conventional and compliant.  

Ms. Shephard had a good time in her duet with Dimitri Katotakis, performing Randy Newman's ironic song "Political Science"--at heart a protest against American aggression.

Mr. Katotakis did well with "Pampamapa", Carlos Guastavino's setting of Hamlet Lima Quintana's poetry--more resistance to Argentinean fascism, although the text is more allusive than descriptive. The complex folkloric rhythms were stirring.

What Joshua Blue did with Fats Waller's song "Black and Blue" was extremely powerful. The text by Andy Razaf speaks to the painful damage done to an individual's sense of self worth by prejudice. It felt very personal and filled with truth.  It hurt! Mr. Blue is appropriately named since he has a real feeling for the blues and knows just how to bend a pitch.

He was similarly superb in Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother" which deals with government surveillance.  It made us think of racial profiling; it made us uncomfortable, which is a good thing. We might add that Mr. Blue's instrument has a very special timbre.

Jacob Scharfman sang a wonderful song about Gay Pride called "The Lavender Song", written by Mischa Spoliansky in 1920 as "Das Lila Lied" and popular in German cabaret. The lyrics were written by Kurt Schwabach and translated by Jeremy Lawrence. It's a fine song but we wish we had heard it in the original German.

But we did hear Mr. Scharfman sing in Yiddish--the 1943 "Zog Nit Keynmol", by Vilna poet Hirsh Glik and also known as "The Partisan's Song". The pre-existing melody was written by Soviet-Jewish composer Dimitri Pokrass.  It's hopeful message was adopted by the Vilna Partisans who were inspired by the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and it spread from one concentration camp to another with its inspirational message.

Andrew Munn sang "Bella, Ciao", a traditional song of resistance to Mussolini and also Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" from the 1937 show of the same name--a pro-Labor musical during the Great Depression which protested against wicked greedy capitalists.

The entire ensemble performed the encore--"Now is the Cool of the Day" an Appalachian folk hymn recorded by Jean Ritchie. With seven stunning voices raised in harmony, singing about taking care of Mother Earth, it was an inspiring way to end this special evening.

Additional musical support was provided by Chris Reynolds on piano and Jack Gulielmetti on guitar.

(c) meche kroop

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