|Michael Barrett, Naomi Louisa O'Connell, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Jesse Blumberg, Chelsea Shephard, Amy Owens, and Steven Blier
Our admiration of and affection for a group of young singers swayed us toward reviewing last night's New York Festival of Song. It was indeed a challenge for our 19th c. ears to relate to a program of late 20th and 21st c. music. We love opera, we love stories, we love lieder that tell us a story. So much contemporary vocal music is abstract and offers settings of texts that we would not enjoy reading for their own merits. The music inspired by these texts does not seem to add much.
Steven Blier's program played to a packed house and comprised works of three generations of American composers. The earliest one was Paul Bowles, the next was William Bolcom, and the newest was Gabriel Kahane.
It was a triumph of singing and acting on the part of the artists that overcame our feelings of being lost in abstraction. Our happiest moments came when the material offered a relatable dramatic situation.
Paul Bowles' Picnic Cantata is a daffy almost surrealist tale about four women planning and executing a picnic. The four women singers appeared dressed in mid 20th c. summer dresses. Their voices harmonized beautifully.
When mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell sang the aria "The Sunday paper is full of news", she related the sad story of a married woman in love with a married man, writing to an advice columnist. She filled the story with pathos and sympathy so the accompaniment by Mr. Blier and Mr. Barrett began to make sense.
In that cycle, we also enjoyed "In sun and shade", in which the lyrical piano line seemed to express the image of a warm day spent in nature with the kites flying. Some interesting sounds were provided by percussionist Barry Centanni.
Our favorite part of the evening was William Bolcom's Suite from Dinner at Eight which was receiving its world premiere. The opera itself, with libretto by Mark Campbell, will receive its premiere next month at Minnesota Opera; we expect it will be a great success. It is based on a play from 1932 written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber.
Accompanied by both pianos, soprano Chelsea Shephard used her ample vocal artistry and dramatic skills to portray Millicent Jordan who is planning a dinner party in the opening aria "Lobster in aspic", endowing the role with imperiousness, anxiety, and the best kind of humor--the unselfconscious type.
Mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms was stunning and convincing as the retired actress Carlotta, reminiscing with Millicent's husband Oliver in "Our town".
Versatile baritone Jesse Blumberg was convincing as Oliver Jordan in the troubled aria "You think you're safe", as he faces the failure of his business in The Great Depression.
Soprano Amy Owens, remembered as a charming Zerbinetta at the Santa Fe Opera (summer 2014), gave a moving performance of "My love will see us through"--sung by the Jordan's daughter Paula to her troubled alcoholic lover.
Ms. O'Connell invested Lucy, married to a cheating doctor, with all the ambivalence of a woman who stays with her man despite the pain he causes her. The work ended with the entire ensemble raising their voices in hopeful harmony in "The party goes on" (even without the guests of honor and the lobster aspic).
A world premiere was on the program as well--Gabriel Kahane's Six Packets of Oatmeal, commissioned by NYFOS. The text was a "poem" by Galway Kinnell which was not at all poetic, just the ramblings of an isolated man who fantasizes about imaginary companions joining him for breakfast. Although Mr. Blumberg sang it beautifully, we kept thinking about Schubert's Winterreise as a far more artistic depiction of isolation and mental illness.
There were some mighty strange sounds emanating from the piano and something we did enjoy was Mr. Barrett's demonstration of how plucking the strings under the lid of the piano could produce some strange overtones. But the text was too idiosyncratic for our taste.
A shorter piece by Mr. Kahane from 2006 was of more interest to us. "Half a box of condoms" from his Craigslistlieder was sung by Chelsea Shephard and offered ample chuckles.
(c) meche kroop