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, March 18, 2015


Paying tribute to Steve Blier are Shea Owens, Alec Carlson, Christopher Reynolds, Chelsea Morris and Julia Dawson

If you have yet to spend an evening in the company of Steven Blier you don't know what you are missing but we plan to let you in on the good news.  Song is alive and well in his hands; he curates an evening of music around a given theme, unearths an amazing selection of songs, shares tidbits of information about them with his audience, and shows equal respect for the old masters and the contemporary ones. He accomplishes all this while discovering young talent and bringing them to the attention of the song-loving public.

Founder and Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, Mr. Blier has fingers in many pies as master teacher, mentor, coach, collaborative pianist, arranger, writer, and raconteur. Last night's recital at Merkin Hall was the culmination of a weeklong training residency at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts--the Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars program.  And what rising stars we heard!

To begin with the encore, soprano Chelsea Morris, mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson, tenor Alec Carlson and baritone Shea Owens joined voices in a gorgeous arrangement (courtesy of Maestro Blier) of Henry Mancini's "Moon River" from the film Breakfast at Tiffany's.  If this didn't stir you, you must be made of wood.  It sent the audience out the door with happy faces and dancing feet.

Speaking of dancing feet, a NYFOS first was an ear-dazzling tap dance by.....  (get this!) Christopher Reynolds!  Mr. Reynolds is a talented collaborative pianist who took over Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett's piano bench, sharing the accompanying duties with Mr. Blier. As if one major talent were not enough for one man! This amplified the pleasure of the quartet of singers joining voices for Harry Warren's "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish" from Garden of the Moon.  The lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer are highly politically incorrect and highly hilarious.

We have no idea how Mr. Blier finds these treasures but find them, he does.

The first half of the program comprised songs of the bel canto period by Italian masters while the second comprised 20th c. songs by Italian-American composers--a veritable treasure trove of gems.  Of course Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti were represented.  Bellini's long lyrical lines were given fine treatment by soprano Chelsea Morris in "La ricordanza", the music being recycled later for Elvira's mad scene in I Puritani.  Ms. Morris handled the fioritura with aplomb and precision.

Julia Dawson was equally excellent in one of Rossini's numerous settings of Pietro Metastasio's "Mi lagneró tacendo" with all of its broad skips and complex fioritura. The delightful duet "A consolarmi affrettisi" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix was performed by Ms. Morris and tenor Alec Carlson.  Once again we thrilled to the accuracy of the embellishments.

Mr. Carlson sounded just as fine in the opening number, a barcarolle by  Alfredo Catalani entitled "In riva al mare", with its simple lilting piano. In a clever piece of stagecraft, baritone Shea Owens burst onto the stage, interrupting their bows with a confident stage presence and terrific tone, performing Giuseppe Verdi's Brindisi with all the bibulous panache one could wish for.  We hasten to tell you that it was all acting since Mr. Owens does not imbibe.  Coulda fooled us!

Composers who came on the scene a bit later maintained the tradition of beautiful melody--well into the 20th c. verismo period.  Stefano Donaudy actually called his collection of songs Arie di Stile Antico. He composed his "Vaghissima sembianza" when only 13 years of age. Both text and music evince confounding maturity. Mr. Carlson sang it simply and sweetly.

Franco Alfano not only finished Puccini's Turandot but also composed songs; many were settings of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore. We loved Mr. Owens command of color as he transitioned from the quiet meditative verse to the passionate one in "Non nascondere il segreto".  

Ms. Morris impressed us with the vocally spare "I pastori" by Ildebrando Pizzetti with text by Gabriele d'Annunzio and Ms. Dawson with her singing of a charming piece in Hebrew by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco "Ulai laze yihie li ometz", one of three works not in Italian. Another was "Wer hat das erste Lied erdacht" by Ferruccio Busoni, composed when he was 13 years old.  That made two adolescent composer honored on the program and Mr. Carlson again sang very sweetly.

The first part of the program ended with our favorite --"Sérénade napolitaine" a French song by Ruggero Leoncavallo in which Ms. Dawson's mezzo and Mr. Owens' baritone blended beautifully.

The second half of the program included many well known Italian-American composers, most of them friends of Mr. Blier.  Although we rarely find 20th c. American songs sufficiently melodic, the songs Mr. Blier chose were unanimously tuneful.  We heard Dominick Argento's "Spring" and Norman Dello Joio's "There is a lady sweet and kind".  We enjoyed the irony  of John Musto's "Penelope's Song" from his song cycle of the same name.  But we loved what the ensemble did with the irreverent "Some Last Words" from The Book of Uncommon Prayer.

Two selections from John Corigliano impressed.  Ms. Dawson sang the lovely "Irreverent Heart" (text by Yip Harburg) with great depth of feeling and the two lovely ladies performed a scene from his opera The Ghosts of Versailles.  With the two female voices and two pianos the texture was undeniably rich and thrilling.

"This Much is New" was written by Mark Adamo three years ago for Mr. Blier's wedding and this was the first time the piece (text by Mark Campbell) was performed in public.  A perfect marriage of melody and text, feelingly sung by Mr. Owens.

What a special evening!  We are already on board for the next entry on April 28th, Letters from Spain: A world of Song in Spanish Poetry.  Hope to see you there.

(c) meche kroop

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