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, December 6, 2023


 César Andrés Parreño, Steven Blier, and Shelén Hughes

The only song on the New York Festival of Song's satisfying program last night that was familiar to us was Chilean composer Violeta Parra's "Gracias a la Vida". We never knew that it was a farewell to life, written before her lamentable suicide. We must admit that this wonderful piece of music that always had filled us with joy filled us with sadness upon learning of its origins. Nonetheless, we felt "gracias a la musica", which we always feel after having spent an evening with Steven Blier and his well chosen artists and carefully curated program.

There is definitely a degree of magic in these evenings and we are not alone in feeling that. In a city in which there is such strenuous competition for an audience, Mr. Blier's concerts always fill the house, the house being the gracious Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Music Center. We come to be introduced to new songs (not newly composed, but newly "discovered" by Mr. Blier); we come to hear  the cream of the crop of young singers chosen by Mr. Blier; we come for Mr. Blier's charming anecdotes and fascinating tidbits about the composers.

Last night offered the additional benefit of focusing on Latin American music, music which is dear to our heart. Standing against the academic leanings of the early and mid 20th c., Latin American composers appear to have stood their ground in writing music with lyrical vocal lines and underlying rhythm that is so prevalent in the Southern Hemisphere. Folk music has been given a European classical treatment, elevating music of the people into an art form for the ages. If texts that rhymed and scanned were not found they were written by the composers themselves. There is no boring prose  to weigh down the music.

The program comprised songs from Argentina which went way beyond the tango, a song from Ecuador, from whence hails the compelling tenor César Andrés Parreño, a song from Bolivia, the native country of the adorable soprano Shelén Hughes, and more songs from Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, and Peru. It was a veritable banqueteado!

Ms. Hughes and Mr. Parreño are both in the Artist Diploma Vocal Studies Program at Juilliard but we have been enjoying their performances from earlier in their careers and have a secret sense of satisfaction from knowing that we spotted their gifts early on. Both of them share a common facility for expressiveness that makes each song come alive. Gestures are broad and illustrative whilst facial expressions reveal exactly what the composer/libretticist intended. It is more than acting. It is a form of channeling that we always appreciate. It is a quality one must admire in some popular singers, even when one doesn't care for their music.

We wondered what it must be like for Ms. Hughes to have shared the cuenca of her compatrioto Willy Claure who wrote the charming courtship song "Cantarina". We almost fell out of our chair when the brilliant bass-baritone Joseph Parrish, about whose recital we just wrote, joined her onstage for the dance! Guitar accompaniment was provided by the renowned Oren Fader.

Similarly, for Mr. Parreño to have shared "Despedida", the sad pasillo of his compatrioto Gerardo Guevara must have been a special experience.

There were so many other delights on the program that we scarcely know where to begin. It is no secret that we favor duets and the opening duet by Guastavino "Las puertas de la mañana" was particularly lovely as was the lyrical "Anhelo". The closing duet "Odeon" by Brazilian Ernesto Nazareth offered the pair an opportunity for storytelling, painting a picture of some old time movie going. 

Rivaling Gilbert and Sullivan's patter songs was "El Currucha" by Venezuelan Juan Bautista Plaza. It seemed more of a challenge for our ears to grasp  than it was for Mr. Parreño to sing. We admired how he made it look so easy.

Ms. Hughes shone brightly in two Brazilian songs. Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Evocaçao" composed in a minor mode and given a soulful and intense performance. Ernesto Nazareth's "Você nao me da!" offered her an opportunity to show her charming personality.

Of course there had to be an encore. which was yet more charming, a flirtatious duet from the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda --"Caballero del alto plumero". What more could a lover of Lain American music wish for!

© meche kroop


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