Sari Gruber, Naomi Louisa O'Connell, and Justin Michael Austin
We have missed the many pleasures of Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song but now that masking requirements have been lifted, it is just like the good old days B.C. (before Covid)...or almost. Loyal audience members have returned to Kaufman Recital Hall and Maestro Blier is back at the piano with his carefully curated program of songs, astutely chosen singers, and witty commentary.
Last night's concert was devoted exclusively to German cabaret of the 1930's, known as the Weimar Era, and the three singers lit into the material with gusto and wit. When we opened the program, our heart sank when we saw the English text. To our ears, the sound of German matches so perfectly with the music that we were sure we wouldn't like the English translations. However, once the program began, we started to feel appreciation for the skill of Jeremy Lawrence, the translator. The verses rhymed! They scanned!
We very much enjoyed it none the less when some verses were sung in German, or spoken in one language and sung in the other. We still maintain that there is more of a bite to the German language but the trade off is that more members of the audience could understand the meaning. There was bitterness and irony and political criticism. There were amusing sexual innuendoes. There was plenty of gender bending.
Soprano Sari Gruber was joined by Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi Louisa O'Connell and baritone Justin Michael Austin, all of them known from the world of opera and art song, and all with the dramatic ability to convey the emotions of the song, be they anger, irony, or wistfulness. Solos alternated with duets and trios, in which the harmonies delighted the ear and the back and forth dialogue engendered knowing smiles.
The ensemble was particularly strong in the opening number, Mischa Spoliansky's "It's all a swindle" with lyrics by Marcellus Schiffer (English translation by Jeremy Lawrence); it could have been written this year. Schiffer also wrote the lyrics to "Sex Appeal" which was given a very entertaining performance by Ms. OConnell. Ms. Gruber charmingly delivered Mischa Spoliansky's "Maskulinum-Femininum" with Schiffer's gender bending lyrics .
Speaking of gender bending, Mr. Austin sang "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss", Friedrich Holländer's famous song, sung by Marlena Dietrich in the film The Blue Angel--a song we recognized as "Falling in Love Again". Mr. Austin sang it straight which made it all the more powerful. Very different was his delivery of Hanns Eisler's "Rosen auf den Weg gestreut" in which. Kurt Tucholsky's ironic text was performed with intense passion.
What struck us was the similarity to our own epoch. Ninety years ago, Europe was gripped by difficult economic circumstances, fascism was encroaching, and sexual freedoms were being explored. Songs by Friedrich Hollaender, Mischa Spoliansky, Olaf Bienert, and Kurt Tucholsky could have been written today. Most affecting were the anti-war pieces. We were deeply stirred as we considered the dire condition of the world at this very moment in time and how important it is for us to avoid another cataclysmic outcome.
Watch for more to come from NYFOS--of course the theme for the February 15th concert will be.,.."Amor"!
© meche kroop