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.

Friday, January 18, 2019


Shakèd Bar, Jack Kay, Jaylyn Simmons, William Socolof, Anneliese Klenetsky, Chance Jonas-O'Toole, and Gregory Feldmann in Kurt Weill's Berlin

Beloved pianist, raconteur, teacher, and song-miner Steven Blier has a special relationship with students of the Juilliard Vocal Arts Department. Every year his New York Festival of Song presents a special evening at Juilliard starring a group of gifted students, both graduate students and undergraduates. We love to hear students of opera stretch their artistry in new directions; under Maestro Blier's tutelage we hear them shine in new ways. The study of cabaret involves the use of gesture and body movement that can only enhance their operatic performance.

We love Mary Birnbaum's stage direction in everything she does and are thrilled to learn that she will be directing La Bohême in Santa Fe this summer and cannot wait to see what she will bring to one of our favorite operas. For last night's exploration of German cabaret music, she made sure that every movement and gesture was on point.

Still, the success of such an undertaking rests upon the performances themselves and these seven young artists gave their all.  There was never a moment in which we did not experience total commitment to the material and total connection with the audience. The enthusiastic applause was well deserved.

There are so many parallels between our time and Germany in the 20's and 30's that it is frightening. The lyrics written during the Weimar Republic dealt with social and political instability, great gaps between social classes, sexual shifts, and anti-war sentiment. Of course, most artists lean toward the left and we heard a great deal of satire of the ruling class.

Offerings spanned musical theater, operetta, satirical songs, and racy kabarett. The original German was often sung for the opening verse with English translation brought in for subsequent verses. We far preferred listening to the crisp sound of German, so well coached by Marianne Barrett. There was nothing terrible about the English translations but the rhymes were less pungent, less striking to the ear. 

The program notes were extensive and well worth reading. The program also included the lyrics but some of the sense was lost in the translation and one never wants to be reading along instead of paying attention to the performer. We would have preferred to hear the program in German with titles projected above. 

We do acknowledge that even a fluent German speaker might have missed a number of references that an audience contemporaneous with the original performances would have grasped. Perhaps there is no perfect solution to the presentation of material from another century and in another language.

Consequently, it was up to the singers to convey the meaning of the songs and at this, they excelled.  Tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole with his sweet sound and William Socolof with his rich bass-baritone got the evening off to a fine start with Kurt Weill's "Berlin im Licht", accompanied by Mr. Blier's piano and Jack Gulielmetti's banjo.

Frederick Hollander's "Wenn der alte Motor wieder tackt" was brought to life by Ms. Birnbaum's clever staging and the performances of mezzo-soprano Shakèd Bar and Gregory Feldmann's resonant baritone.

Although written somewhat later (1956), we could really identify with Olaf Bienert's ballad of disconnection "Augen in der Großstadt", given a heartfelt delivery by baritone Jack Kay. We suppose that even prior to cell phones, big city folk suffered from missed connection by virtue of other distractions.

Soprano Anneliese Klenetsky created a humorous portrait of a woman fighting off unwelcome suitors in Hollander's "Tritt mir bloß nicht auf die Schuh". She was joined by all four men in the ensemble who imitated her gestures to hilarious effect.

Songs of sexual politics were particularly resonant and Ms. Bar's performance of Kurt Tucholsky's "Sleepless Lady" stuck in our mind. What woman has not resented a man falling asleep while she lies in bed with insomnia! The message was "Don't sleep in company".  Well, it sounded better in German!

Ms. Bar, Ms. Klenetsky, and soprano Jaylyn Simmons formed a terrific trio for Bienert's "That", a very cute illustration of the timelessness of male focus on sex. We loved the line "It's just that we're fond of some kind of bond, along with That".

Anyone who has regretted discarding a lover could identify with Rudolf Nelson's "Peter, Peter", a ballad beautifully rendered by Mr. Socolof.

Much fun was had at the expense of the greedy financial world in "The Lottery Agent's Tango", performed with accurate irony by Mr. Jonas-O'Toole from Kurt Weill's last work in German--Der Silbersee, written before he fled Germany and banned by the Nazis. Whilst hearing Mr. Feldmann's excellent performance of "Caesar's Death", we could understand why it was banned! Of all the works we heard it seemed most typical of the collaboration between Weill and Bertold Brecht.

Their prior Happy End included a song of gentrification which also resonated with contemporary times--"Bilbao Song". We liked Mr. Blier's honky-tonk piano accompaniment and Mr. Gulielmetti's guitar.

Ms. Simmons was superb in Bienert's "Song of Indifference" which reminded us of our present tendency to "fiddle while Rome burns". "And my purse is slowly swinging" made a good equivalent.

Although Mr. Blier's customary fascinating narration was hampered by some rather poor amplification, we were able to understand a very important point he made about the song "Wie lange noch", sung by Ms. Bar.  This was commissioned during World War II by the Voice of America to be broadcast behind enemy lines. We always thought it was about a romantic betrayal but Mr. Blier pointed out that it was about Hitler betraying the German folk.

One of the best anti-war songs we've ever heard was Eisler's "Der Graben" which really sticks it to the military-industrial complex. Will times never change! Mr. Feldmann gave it a moving interpretation.

The bitter "Denn wie man sich bettet, so liegt man" (from Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) closed the program with the entire ensemble joining in. We were glad there was an encore--Eisler's "Peace Song".

There is not room to describe all the performances but we hope we have given you the flavor of the evening--a bit sour, a bit bitter, a bit salty. We were missing something sweet so we came home and had a cookie.

(c) meche kroop

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