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, April 25, 2018


Jack Gulielmetti, Steven Blier, Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby, Antonina Chehovska, Theo Hoffman, Lauren Worsham, Mary Testa, John Brancy, and Michael Barrett

Last night, New York Festival of Song celebrated their 30th Anniversary at Merkin Concert Hall. The well-curated songs were culled from several themed programs in NYFOS' history. Mr. Blier's customary witticisms peppered the notes in the printed program, relating for those who did not know how NYFOS got started-- in the small auditorium of the Greenwich House Music School, with room for only a hundred people.

We count ourself among the devoted followers. We don't even bother to find out what the theme of the evening is or who is singing because every program is sufficiently diverse to contain a few songs we will love and because the singers chosen to sing them are among our favorites. 

Last night's program comprised a collection of songs taken from earlier programs which were sung by a group of artists that we adore, mostly known to us from Juilliard--artists we started writing about when we first started writing. Seven years later, these young singers are singing all over the world and garnering awards by the score.

Not every song rang our bell or touched our heart in the same manner but they all expanded our awareness of what that particular singer can do.  And we are all about expanding awareness.

Take, for example, the very serious baritone John Brancy--an artist of great honesty and integrity. What a pleasure to hear him sing songs of romantic intentions and frivolous ones too! Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Spring Waters" showed Mr. Brancy's passionate side and his substantial baritone stood up well to Michael Barrett's equally passionate piano. The two together created a thrilling climax.

Another expansion was perceived during Gabriel Fauré's gorgeous and tender "En sourdine", sung in fine French with long Gallic lines. We heard an exquisite pianissimo and we decided that our favorite word in French is "rossignol".

Still another side to Mr. Brancy's artistry was heard in his colorful duet with tenor Paul Appleby--Ernesto Lecuona's "Como el arrullo de palmas". The harmonies were mellow and it sounded like a second cousin of Mariachi music.

We just reviewed Mr. Appleby's stellar performance in the title role of Candide at Carnegie Hall. Last night he impressed us with his performance of Jorge Ackermann's "Flor de Yumuri" accompanied not only by piano but by the guitar of Jack Gulielmetti and the percussion of Eric Borghi, which added so much to the Latin flavor.

We also enjoyed his "Tu vois le feu du soir", Francis Poulenc's setting of a text by Paul Eluard which was somewhat less surreal than others we have heard. Mr. Appleby never pushes his voice and we loved the apparent ease with which he spun out the final note.

We always feel most at home with Schubert and Mr. Appleby did complete justice to the jaunty "Taubenpost", a setting of text by Gabriel Seidl.

Baritone Theo Hoffman flew in from LA Opera's Young Artist Program to open the show with Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Orpheus With His Lute". Shakespeare's text may just as well have been speaking of Mr. Hoffman--"In sweet music is such art; Killing care and grief of heart".

That being said, we enjoyed him even more in the witty words and tuneful music of Stephen Sondheim who wrote "Talent" for a musical called Road Show that never made it. A distinguishing feature of Mr. Hoffman's performance is his English diction, which is so clear that not a word was missed. We wish that quality was not as rare as it is!

He also closed the program with the incredibly moving duet by John Lennon and Paul McCartney "In My Life", performed with the sensational soprano Julia Bullock, whose Carnegie Hall recital we just reviewed.

Ms. Bullock could grab our ear if she sang the proverbial phonebook but give her good material and she grabs our heart. Our classical taste was best satisfied by her heartfelt performance of Edvard Grieg's "En svane" but she also gave a toe-tapping performance of Fats Waller's early song "Ain't-Cha Glad".

Soprano Antonina Chehovska has been largely responsible for our evolving interest in Russian and Ukrainian music. One of the highlights of the evening was her performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's seasonally appropriate "Spring Waters" which we have been hearing a lot lately.  "To her" was new to us and its melancholy nature touched our heart.

Russian was not the only language we heard from Ms. Chehovska. Dvorák's gorgeous song "Mé sredce často v bolesti" was sung in Czech and the title translates as "My heart often ponders in sorrow" but we have included the Czech to demonstrate the difficulty of this language, a challenge well met by Ms. Chehovska. The melody drew us in and we recognized a motif the composer used in Russalka. We also heard a Wagnerian flavor in the harmony.

After the difficult Czech, the Spanish of Enrique Granados in "El mirar de la maja" must have seemed easy but the effect was just as lovely.

Adorable soprano Lauren Worsham seems equally at ease with opera and cabaret. She took a very strange unpublished song by the late Jonathan Larson entitled "Hosing the Furniture" and made sense out of what appears to be the "diary of a mad housewife" who lives in a house made of vinyl. 

Her comedic skills were put to even better use in the 18th c. cabaret song "El dulce de América" which involved a lot of physical gestures to get the point across.  This gal is funny!

Another Broadway star was on board for the evening--the legendary mezzo-soprano Mary Testa who performed Michael John LaChiusa's "Heaven" with a lot of bending of the tone. In Hoagy Carmichael's "Old Buttermilk Sky", she was joined by Mr. Gulielmetti playing the banjo and David Ostwald playing the tuba. We always enjoy an original arrangement!

There were more songs but we only have space to hit the highlights. But let's not omit the encore--the Beatles song "Obla-di obla-da", a wonderfully upbeat way to end the celebration, with everyone taking part!

We wish NYFOS another 30 years of song!

(c) meche kroop

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