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.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Christine Price, Mikaela Bennett, Samuel Levine, Kelsey Lauritano, Dimitri Katotakis, and Amanda Bottoms (photo by MIchael DiVito)

Thanks to Steven Blier, our "horizons of appreciation" have expanded beyond opera and lieder.  Similarly, the "horizons of performance" of members of the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at Juilliard have also been extended to include the classics from the Golden Age of American song.  Last night we experienced some of our favorite artists who became for the evening "hoofers, belters, and comedians". (Those are the words of Maestro Blier, but we wish they were ours).

The program comprised songs of three American greats--Harry Warren, Hoagy Carmichael, and Harold Arlen--three men from greatly different backgrounds but united by their compositional contributions to American musical style.

Tenor Gerard Schneider opened with an instrumental version of Arlen's "Over the Rainbow" played on the acoustic guitar. We never knew he played the guitar but we loved the way he began with a simple statement of the melody which grew in complexity, marked by some lovely arpeggios. Yip Harburg's lyrics were sung only in the mind's ear.

This doesn't mean that Mr. Schneider didn't sing; he sang the haunting lyrics (Mack Gordon) of "At Last" from Orchestra Wives, calling attention to Warren's melodic vocal line.  He also sang "Old Buttermilk Sky" (Jack Brooks) with fellow tenor Samuel Levine joining in with a ukulele (who knew!) and a spirited "Yee-Haw".  These are surely multi-talented artists.

As far as tenors go, Mr. Levine is no slouch! We liked him best in Arlen's "Buds Won't Bud" (lyrics again by the wonderful Mr. Harburg) which built to a passionate crescendo.  He charmed us with Arlen's "Evelina" (Harburg) from Bloomer Girl with ukulele and Southern accent as he wooed Ms. Price.  He assumed a rather world-weary mien for the chromatically complex "Last Night When We Were Young" another Harburg/Arlen pairing from Metropolitan.

Soprano Mikaela Bennett grabbed our attention with a passionately delivered eulogy to the evil lover she had just shot in "Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-to-Be" from the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen St. Louis Woman, a show which should have been more famous than it was. She also thrilled in a jazzy version of "A Sleepin' Bee" from the Truman Capote/Harold Arlen House of Flowers, which also deserved more fame.

Ms. Bennett paired with mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms for the delightful duet "Two Ladies in de Shade of de Banana Tree", also from House of Flowers. We believe some shows did not become the hits they deserved to be because of cultural issues, not musical flaws.  Ms. Bottoms gave us a very jazzy version of Carmichael's "Old Man Harlem" complete with "scat" singing.

But we enjoyed her most in the Mercer/Arlen "That Old Black Magic" from Star Spangled Rhythm. Mr. Schneider's guitar and Mr. Blier's piano went absolutely wild with abandon.

Soprano Christine Price delivered "It's a New World" with simplicity and sincerity. Arlen's vocal line here was exceptional and Ira Gershwin's lyrics moving. Similarly, Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" (Ned Washington) touched the heart with Ms. Price conveying every ounce of emotion, spinning out the final note like a silken strand.

Mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano did a bang-up job as a Carmen Miranda type character in "I, Yi, Yi, Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much" (Mack Gordon/Harry Warren) from That Night in Rio and "When I Love, I Love"(same team) from Weekend in Havana. Apparently, these tropical musicals put Brazil and Cuba on the map, so to speak. The gentlemen of the cast doffed their shoes, rolled up their trousers, and did a fine send up of Latin caricatures. The ladies of the cast wiggled around with bananas and a pineapple while Ms. Lauritano sported a hatful of fruit.  Major fun!

Another humorous number was "I'm Going Shopping With You" by Harry Warren from Dames. Baritone Dimitri Katotakis put heart and soul into his comedy routine and Mr. Blier contributed a few extra lines giving the ending a gay twist, something Mr. Blier does so delightfully in almost every show.  The beautiful duet "Hard to Replace" from The Barkleys of Broadway (Ira Gershwin/Warren) was sung by Mr. Katotakis and Ms. Lauritano. The lyrics of Gershwin are intensely moving and the two artists filled them with meaning.

The company performed as an ensemble for "Cheerful Little Earful" from Warren's Sweet and Low and in "Jeepers Creepers" from Going Places by Warren. We got to hear Mr. Schneider's guitar again and saw some fun tap dancing.  (Oh, those Juilliard students can do anything!) Adam Cates was credited as choreographer.  They closed with "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" from Here Comes the Groom by Mercer/Carmichael. They sure can harmonize!

Mary Testa was the guest coach and Mary Birnbaum was Stage Director. Ms. Birnbaum always adds something original and clever.  In "The Old Music Master" from True to Life (Mercer/Carmichael), cast members were used as a hat rack and a writing desk while Mr. Katotakis performed the vocals.

In "I'm Going Shopping With You", cast members became clothing racks. And in "Two Ladies in de Shade of de Banana Tree" Ms. Bennett and Ms. Bottoms fought over a fan, to comical effect.

Chris Reynolds was assistant pianist.

This yearly collaboration between Juilliard and New York Festival of Song always produces surprises and delights. Beneath the surface of fun was a lot of hard work but the artistry lies in showing the fun and hiding the labor.

(c) meche kroop

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