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 11, 2015


Dina Kuznetzova, Dalit Warshaw, Steven Blier, Michael Barrett, and Shea Owens

Last night our dear impressario, raconteur, and pianist Steven Blier presented a program "From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends". We are always happy to hear Russian songs and Rachmaninoff's extravagant lyricism is at the top of our list. The more we hear, the more we want to hear. This concert was presented as part of  the New York Philharmonic's Rachmaninoff festival.

Soprano Dina Kuznetzova has appeared frequently with New York Festival of Song and always impresses us with her glorious voice and intense involvement with the text--a true songbird she is! Baritone Shea Owens has similarly appeared with NYFOS and is also known to us from the Santa Fe Opera. He is always a pleasure to hear with his romantic leading-man sound and the sincerity of his stage presence.

New to us is composer/pianist/theraminist Dalit Warshaw. We have always been fascinated by this strange instrument, played without touch, but we never expected to have the opportunity to hear and see one played live. We had a fine time trying to figure out how Ms. Warshaw drew such sounds out of it.

We spoke with her at the post-concert reception and learned that our speculation was only half right.  Yes, the right hand creates the pitch but no, the sound is not created but rather the silence is sculpted from the sound made by the theramin. Does that make sense? Well, we think one would have to actually confront the instrument oneself to understand! It's inventor, one Lev Sergeyevich Termen, might have been anticipating the advent of electronic music!

The program included a few songs with which we are familiar due to their presence on a lot of recital programs. Sergei Rachmaninoff started composing songs at the age of 17 and, after leaving Russia, never wrote another. One of our favorites dates back to this early time period and "In the Silence of the Night" shows the influence of his teacher Tchaikovsky. How could it be anything but intensely moving--a song of lost love. Mr. Owens sang it with a lot of inner fire but without a lot of outward "signaling".

We noticed this also when he sang the meditative "She is as Lovely as the Noon" with its bursts of melismatic singing.  Meanwhile, Mr. Blier's piano reveled in a lot of exotic purling figures. In "The Torrents of Spring" he showed appropriate exuberance with Michael Barrett's piano enjoying the passionate postlude.

But it was toward the end of the program when Mr. Owens sang Rachmaninoff's only comic song "Were You Hiccupping?" that we got a complete picture of his dramatic range and flair for humor.

Although Mr. Owens is not Russian born, my Russian-speaking companion pronounced his Russian "exemplary". We do not know if he speaks Russian but his diction succeeded in every way.

Miss Kuznetzova is Russian born so her diction is not an issue. The major aspect of her performance was the intensity of her involvement in "Russian soul". Every phrase seemed deeply felt and produced with a most attractive vibrato.

In "No Prophet, I", Mr. Blier's piano rippled along while she used a variety of dynamics, exhibiting a beautiful pianissimo in the line about being a singer with the lyre as a weapon.

Among the many songs new to us was "Melody" with its whispers of Orientalism in the piano and a text that idealizes a beautiful death.  We also enjoyed her performance of the searching "A-oo!"

And what about that theremin!  It makes an eerie kind of whiny sound that sounds like nothing else on earth. We enjoyed it most in duet with the voices.  The final work on the program was the famous "Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 15". Without any words, the voices of Ms. Kuznetzova and Mr. Owens expressed a dozen different feelings; the various combinations with and without the voice of the theramin encompassed a variety of textures.

As encore we heard the 1945 Buddy Kaye/Ted Mossman "Full Moon and Empty Arms", a blatant theft from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2, performed by the ensemble, including the theramin.

The program also included songs by composers Rachmaninoff knew when he immigrated to the USA. We heard Joseph Schillinger's "Orientalia"--two vocalises written for voice  but performed by Ms. Warshaw and Mr. Barrett.  Also a bluesy number by Duke Ellington ("On a Turquoise Cloud") in which Ms. Kuznetzova's voice blended beautifully with Ms. Warshaw's theramin and Mr. Blier's piano.

However, from this portion of the program, our personal favorite was "Little Jazz Bird" from the brothers Gershwin's 1924 opus Lady, Be Good!  Mr. Blier went absolutely wild on the piano and Mr. Owens sang it charmingly. We hope it will be scheduled on one of the "Sing for Your Supper" evenings at Henry's.

We are eagerly awaiting the next NYFOS recital at Merkin Hall, featuring songs by Schubert alongside those by The Beatles. There is always something compelling coming up. As Mr. Blier says "No song is safe from us."

(c) meche kroop

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