|(seated) Steven Blier and Jack Gulielmetti
(front on left side) Shereen Pimentel and Christine Taylor Price
(back row) Jacob Scharfman, Joshua Blue, Dimitri Katotakis, Andrew Munn, and Rihab Chaieb
At the end of last night's concert of protest songs, Maestro Steven Blier uttered his first words, "Garbo Speaks". The consequent laughter was related to the absence of his customary narration and anecdotal contributions. This time, M. Blier wanted the songs to speak for themselves. They did speak--they more than spoke; they lamented, they howled, they challenged negativity.
This New York Festival of Song show was originally presented at Juilliard and at Henry's Restaurant as part of their Sing for Your Supper series, staged by the terrific director Mary Birnbaum. It deserved a wider audience and was therefore presented last night at Merkin Hall once again, this time directed by Mo Zhou, who did a great job of moving the artists around the stage and adding gestural meaning to the material.
The theme resonated with the audience, inasmuch as we have so much to protest in today's political climate. Perhaps the most vociferous applause was in response to Woody Guthrie's unpublished "Old Man Trump". As we know, POTUS comes from a real estate family and his father was the racist landlord mentioned in Mr. Guthrie's song; Guthrie was incensed when Trump tried to keep Beach Haven white. The mid 20th c. song was performed by baritone Dimitri Katotakis, beginning a capella, then joined by Jack Gulielmetti's guitar. At one point he played the harmonica!
Another very powerful song was the ballad "Joe Hill", written by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson and performed with great depth of feeling by bass Andrew Munn who "mined" his real life experience in Appalachia to give the song a very present quality that struck us right in the gut.
Accompanied by Mr. Blier's very bluesy piano, tenor Joshua Blue began his very personal performance of Fats Waller's "Black and Blue" (lyrics by Andy Razaf) with a feeling of puzzlement that grew in power before reaching the anguished climax.
Jacob Scharfman impressed with his full low voice, lending gravity to "The Lavender Song" by Mischa Spoliansky and Kurt Schwabach; a high voiced campy delivery would have undermined the intense message of the song but Mr. Scharfman's body movement made it clear that the song was about self-expression of the marginalized homosexual community--a half century before the Stonewall Riots.
We have saved the ladies for last. Soprano Shereen Pimentel brought back personal memories with her performance of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" which we actually experienced in Canada sung by Joni Mitchell! She truly did the song justice and we loved the backup group doing the "doo wop"--Mr. Katotakis, Christine Price, and Rihab Chaieb.
Soprano Christine Taylor Price preceded her performance of Bernstein's "A Julia de Burgos" by reciting Burgos' poetry with such apt dramatic intent that we understood the song for the first time. We knew Burgos was a feminist poet from Puerto Rico and we have heard the song a few times without "getting" it. All it took was a true vocal and dramatic artist to get it across!
The very talented mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb sang "A Prayer to the New Year" in Arabic. It was the most contemporary piece on the program; the text by Fadwa Tuqan was set by Mohammed Fairouz and we found it inspirational. We wish it had been the final piece on the program because it left us with hopeful feelings for the future.
Many feelings were expressed over the course of the short program. "El Cambalache" by Enrique Santos Discépolo was translated into English by William Bolcom and Mr. Sharfman brought out every ounce of cynicism, making it the most contemporary of the offerings.
Other songs we heard protested fascism in Mussolini's Italy and in Argentina. The refugee situation and exile were addressed as well as racial and religious discrimination and the despoiling of our environment. There is so much to protest!
Do we need to tell you how superb all the voices were and how heartfelt the performances? The entire cast joined in for the encore, Jane Ritchie's "Now is the Cool of the Day" sung by the entire cast in beautiful harmony and a capella. Like most strophic folk tunes, it lingers in the ear.
(c) meche kroop