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, November 8, 2017


Justin Austin, Miles Mykkanen, Annie Rosen, Steven Blier, Michael Barrett, Chelsea Shepherd, Lucia Bradford, and Adrian Rosas

A fortuitous confluence of anniversaries led to a special evening with New York Festival of Song. Of course, every evening with Steve Blier and friends is special, but the fact that NYFOS is celebrating their 30th anniversary and it is also the centenary of Leonard Bernstein's birth, ensured an evening that was even more special.

We took advantage of the opportunity to assess Bernstein's contributions to the vocal canon, unenlightened as we are, and unburdened by Mr. Blier's worshipful adoration or Mr. Barrett's close association as assistant conductor to the maestro. Our opinions are our own and completely based on our own personal taste.

The first half of the program delighted us no end. It comprised mainly Broadway type material which seems to us a truly American art form and a far worthier contributor to song literature than the so-called art songs that we heard in the second half of the program.

It occurs to us that the contributions of a good lyricist who knows how to manipulate the English language is a better stimulation to a composer than poetry which doesn't ask to be set to music. Take for example Bernstein's West Side Story, for which Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. We have no idea which came first, the lyrics or the music, but the pairing is perfect.

We were fortunate to have heard three exceptional excerpts from the score. Tenor Miles Mykkanen, whose star is on the rise, gave a dramatically expressive and vocally stunning performance of "Something's Coming". We just heard him sing the role of Tony a week ago with Heartbeat Opera (review archived) and we would say he owns the role and puts his unique stamp on it.

Soprano Chelsea Shephard was joined by mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen for "A Boy Like That/ I Have a Love" and the two female voices sounded terrific.  All that was needed was a little sazon to take it to the next level.

The quintet was powerful and was amplified by the two percussionists on hand for the evening--Barry Centanni and Taylor Goodson.

In a very close tie with West Side Story for our favorite Bernstein musical is Candide.  Truth to tell, we always think of these two as operas but the designation could be debated. We are inclined to call something an opera if we love it! We have seen Candide on Broadway and in opera houses and we don't care where we see it or what it is called.  We just love everything about it--the characters, the humor, the music, the witty lyrics (many lyricists were involved) and Bernstein's gorgeous music.

"You Were Dead, You Know" is a character-revealing duet and the performances by Ms. Shephard as the worldly wise Cunegonde and Mr. Mykkanen as the eponymous innocent Candide were nothing short of spectacular.

We would have been happy to spend the rest of the evening with more songs from those two works but we also heard "The Story of My Life" from the 1953  Wonderful Town for which Comden and Green wrote the lyrics. Poor intellectual and unloved Ruth was portrayed by the artistic and lovable Ms. Rosen as a character study of a disappointed woman.

From On the Town, a musical derived from a Jerome Robbins ballet, we heard a song that was cut from the show--"Ain't Got No Tears Left" performed with deep feeling for the blues by mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford (in her NYFOS debut) who knows how to bend a note. There was a major assist from the percussionists.

In his later years, Bernstein wrote a show that failed, in spite of a libretto by Alan J. Lerner. Several worthy songs from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue survived, of which our favorite was "We Must Have a Ball" in which President James Buchanan aims to distract the populace from the truly awful condition of our nation by throwing a ball.  (Plus ca change, etc.).  Bass-baritone Adrian Rosas was perfectly cast as POTUS and effectively employed his generous instrument and astute dramatic sense.

From the same show, silky-voiced baritone Justin Austin sang "Seena", the tale of a childhood friendship becoming an adult romance. We enjoyed his delicate messa di voce.

Mr. Mykkanen turned grave for "Take Care of This House" and his voice soared like an eagle in the upper register.

"Prelude/Love Duet" from Arias and Barcarolles was sung by Mr. Austin and Ms. Rosen.  We found the overlapping dialogue just plain confusing and impossible to follow.

The second half of the program was devoted to Bernstein's 1977 Songfest, which was originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for the bicentennial celebration in 1976.  It was not completed in time but had a successful premiere a year later at the Kennedy Center.

We can admire the project to include a dozen American voices and to express each in a different musical style, but the work was, with a couple exceptions,  not to our taste, although we did appreciate some fine performances. John Musto reduced the score for two pianos and two percussionists.

Mr. Austin's relaxed manner was perfect for "The Pennycandystore Beyond the El" with text by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was just another case of a text we might enjoy reading but to which the music added nothing.

There were two songs that we did enjoy and would want to hear again--both with texts by women. In "A Julia de Burgos" there was a great advantage by way of the Spanish text which falls far more gently on the ear than English. Ms. Shephard sang it beautifully, contrasting two manifestations of womanhood.

The second one we related to was a real discovery for us. Anne Bradstreet was the first published female American composer--even before there was a USA!  Dating back to 17th c. colonial America, she wrote a text in praise of her husband and set it to lovely tuneful music. Perhaps we enjoyed it so much because the text rhymes and scans. All three women sang together in overlapping voices and we found the aural overtones just thrilling.

The overlapping voices in "I Too Sing America/Okay Negroes" did not thrill because two different texts were being sung at once. We liked Langston Hughes text which was finely sung by Mr. Austin with a depth of feeling. But the angry text by June Jordan from a later period of the 20th c. did not appeal, although Ms. Bradford sang it well.

Mr. Mykkanen can make anything sound meaningful, even Gregory Corso's "Zizi's Lament" for which the setting was pleasingly exotic.

There was an encore which we could not identify which involved the entire wonderful cast humming.  Hmmmmmmm!

(c) meche kroop

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