New York Festival of Song

Spox Vox Reax

The line up for the 2011-12 season of the Metropolitan Opera is out, and it’s surprising. The Met is the Met, and their strengths are their own, so it’s not a disappointing season to me. Opera has a broad range and I expect the outlying parts to be filed in by City Opera and other companies. On the Met’s terms, the surprises are good, bad, and, well, just plain surprising.

For the bad, and only slightly so, there is nothing that is truly ‘new,’ whether Dr. Atomic from two seasons ago, last year’s debut of Patrice Chereau with From The House Of The Dead, or this season’s production of Nixon in China. I’m truly surprised because each of those were remarkable successes, and would seem to make it easier to continue that trend. However, Satyagraha is now part of the house repertory, and that’s amazing to me and truly a watershed mark for the Met, Phillip Glass and contemporary opera. A subtly brave and bold decision.

On the surprising side there’s lots of Donizetti. Snobs from both ends of the spectrum look down on him as fodder for the board members and the patrons who sleep through performance, but the guy wrote a bunch of good works, and there’s never anything wrong about doing something that’s simply solid and musical. The new productions of standard works move apace, but that has been a mixed bag under Gelb. For example, this season’s Don Carlo, from Nicholas Hytner, seemed mostly pointless. The sets were sleek and stark but without unifying idea nor any concept that specifically had to do with the opera. The subversive comment on Ratzinger was bracing, but the other symbols seemed accidental. I’m also wary about the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island. Pastiche is problematic, of course, though there’s no reason this can’t be good. From the evidence of WIlliam Christie’s appearance conducting Cosí fan tutte I don’t know what to think. I had expectations for at least an interesting collision between the Met’s thinking about the repertory and Christie’s, but the stature and legacy of the house seemed to subvert the conductor’s personal views. Everything was fine, solid, capable if standard and pleasingly bland.

Fundamentally what the Met is known for is singing. In that, they have an interesting companion, and possibly a rival, in the New York Festival of Song. NYFOS is holding their second night of the program “Night and Day/USA: Americans Working and Dreaming” tonight at 8PM at Merkin Hall. The first was everything that I have come to expect from a NYFOS concert: a program of simply great songs, laid out in a narrative full of musical and emotional intelligence, presented with humor and humanity by Steven Blier and, of course, with great singing. On Tuesday, the voices were soprano Sari Gruber, mezzo Liza Forrester and baritone James Martin, with help from tenor Christopher Tiesi and additional accompaniment from NYFOS co-founder Michael Barrett.

A NYFOS concert is not just singing, it’s performing, and I give Blier a great deal of credit for that. He is clearly a marvelous coach, not only adding judicious theatrical touches and bits of choreography, but opening up great musical charisma that is part of the evening. The singers become the characters in the songs and the performances become deeply human. The idea of people waking up in the morning, going off to work and heading home to bed in the end was conveyed through songs that covered the twentieth century from Charles Ives “In The Morning,” sung with exquisite control and plangent feeling by Gruber, to a selection of four of Kurt Weill’s songs from Broadway, to a recent and lovely song, “The Night You Decided To Stay,” from composer Steve Marzullo. In between there were some real discoveries of obscure material and fantastic performances of truly great songs: Hall Johnson’s “On The Dusty Road,” with a lyric from Langston Hughes in a “Wow!” performance from Martin, a great setting of an Elizabeth Bishop poem by Lee Hoiby, “Insomnia,” and the brilliant choice of Tom Waits’ “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue),” a song that, when removed from Waits’ own overwhelmingly distinctive voice and placed in the hands of Martin, Barrett and Blier, is revealed as a great song, proof that Waits is one of America’s greatest songwriters of any generation.

These are particulars, though, and the ultimate point is that a NYFOS concert is one of the greatest pleasures you can have hearing music. The singing is so fine and the performances are so welcoming and expressive that they make everything sound and feel like a masterpiece.

Singing, Part One

It’s nonsensical that those who claim to be defending marriage, which of course is not even under attack, seek to do so by limiting the number and kind of people who may join in it. They would prefer marriage to be like a country club, and limit admittance from the wrong kind of people. Their idea of love was described by Walt Whitman as:

Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious

Behold the received models of the parlors –

To which the poet immediately responds:

What are they to me?

What to these young men that travel with me?

In 1977, Leonard Bernstein set those lines and the entire poem to music, writing what is one of the great art songs in the canon of Western classical music. Tuesday night at Merkin Hall, The New York Festival of Song and organizer and accompanist Steven Blier presented this song as part of the first of two nights of Manning the Canon, Songs of Gay Life. It’s a program with, yes, an agenda, one that it wears upfront and so lightly that the need for argument is dispensed, and the music does the talking. Blier and his singers are not responsible for having to respond to the question of whether or not gays belong in society, but they have given the best answer; rather than arguing the point, they merely show that gays have always belonged in society, and the answer comes in song.

Great songs, and great singing. The program covered 200 years in time and cabaret, Broadway and art songs, starting with “Purest Kind of a Guy” from Marc Blitzstein’s show No For an Answer (and popularized by Paul Robeson) to “You’re The Top!” – without Patricia Barber’s, um, variations. In between were songs were songs explicitly about being gay, Steven Lutvak’s “Exit Right,” songs about a love choked by society from Tchaikovsky and Charles Griffes, an echt-cheeky and perfectly appropriate take on Cy Coleman’s “Tennis Duet” from City of Angels, a marvelous song by Poulenc, “Montparnasse,” with a poem by Apollinaire about discovering the true nature of personal desire, a excellent setting of Frank O’Hara’s “Song (It Is Dirty),” by Christopher Berg, and the late Chris De Blasio’s marvelous and moving “Walt Whitman in 1989,” from a poem by Perry Brass. There was not a weak link in all this widely varied material, it was an exceptionally well-chosen program enhanced by Blier’s wise and funny interstitial comments and his sensitive accompaniment.

And the singing was fabulous, all of the men – tenor Scott Murphree, baritones Jesse Blumberg and Matthew Worth and bass Matt Boehler – not just excellent vocalists but excellent performers as well, giving each song the right amount and type of character, whether that meant sublime beauty in an ensemble arrangement of Schubert’s “Der Gondelfahrer” or the exactly right kind of over-acting in “The Piano Walk/I’ll Be By,” an excerpt from William Bolcom’s Casino Paradise. Boehler dominated the evening, in a generous way, with his natural, comfortable charisma and his great instrument, both full and with the kind of edge to his timbre that is an exceptional quality in a bass voice. From start to finish this was one of the most purely pleasurable concerts in recent memory, the music-making the argument itself. No ethical, moral person can say no to love, and the effect of the event was to spread a mature, knowing, joyful love through the audience. This was beauty as an expression of human feeling, without received models or manners. In terms of judging the quality of music, and art, it’s easier to be distracted by attempts at profundity and high concept, when the simple making of music as well and as beautifully as one can is the fundamental goal. The first night of Manning the Canon was as beautiful as great music, and great art, can be. [There are further installments of the festival in February and March].

“Everybody loves being sung to.” Blier must state the obvious, unfortunately. Those politicians and religious figures who speak loudly about marriage being the foundation of civilization (here’s a particularly good example of such a tendentious idiot), see the institution as an abstract right or ideal, rather than a concrete process, and their notion of civilization is the legacy of their ridiculous, shallow propaganda, bound between hardcovers. Civilization is people coming together in one fairly static place to develop ways of thinking and being together, to specifically develop ways of living that become abstract values that bind people together in mutual choices. Civilization is founded on singing.

Before people could decide what they could do together, they came together to make music and to hear stories, stories that were sung. Homer was a singer, what we now call his poetry was a sung epic. And the form did not originate with him, nor only in the Balkans. Singing is the first music, and music is the thing we do together that is the first thing that is abstract and created out of the imagination of the body and the mind. So let’s defend singing, in all its variety.

That truly amazing variety was on display at the Vital Vox 2010 festival, held at the Issue Project Room. In the two (out of a total of three) nights I attended I saw a dazzling range of singing. At the most familiar end was Corey Dargel’s premiere of a group of songs, Hold Yourself Together, accompanied by WIll Smith and James Moore. Dargel’s phrases and the range of his accompaniments keep slowing extending and expanding, to good effect. The music is at times blippy, at times crunchy, with some baroque filligree in “Your Profound Self-Doubt,” while Dargel croons out jaundiced but still optimistic lyrics. His songs are about the miscommunications of modern life, both inadvertent and deliberately used by couples to misunderstand each other. Ultimately, and with a sweet and almost regretful tenderness, they accept and embrace love, possibly and actually. Nat Baldwin sang about love too, accompanying himself on bass. He ended his charming set with a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost,” and his own material was eccentric and subtly complex, a long improvisation on the bass opening up an intriguing abstract side to the music. A fine balance of the commonplace and the avant-garde.

A man’s gotta make a living . . .

There was a lot of vocal improvisation, some excellent, some problematic. Samita Sinha’s Cipher was just that. She sang snatches of improvisation in the style of tarana , and sang well, but her music was disorganized. She abandoned ideas without building them up, stopped singing altogether at times to fiddle with rather dull beats from a variety of electronic boxes, with no apparent reason or purpose, and interpolated “Oh Death” into her performance in a way that was pretentious and irritating. Her best material, looping her voice and singing against it, came at the end, and by that time the performance had gone on, badly, for too long. Festival organizer Sabrina Lastman premiered a piece called River of Painted Birds, which she sang accompanied by electronics, some video and some drumming from David Stillman. The sound was rich, evocative and frequently lovely, with Lastman singing with mellifluous phrasing, but not all the electronic material worked – a section with prerecorded speaking voices seemed to belong to another piece. Her improvising was fine, but she fell into the trap of reaching a natural ending, then continuing, deflating the power of the piece. With a touch of restructuring this could be a powerhouse work.

The great Joan La Barbara was on hand to offer part of an opera in progress (i had already seen a part for ensemble in the spring). Gatekeeper featured her wordless, solo singing with electronic backing. Her idea is to provide some insight into the artist’s struggle to create, and her concentrated, evocative performance explored the indescribable internal sensation of the mind at work, wrestling both with itself and to articulate thoughts in a way that can be communicated. She effectively conveyed the oddly pleasing frustration of having to say something and not knowing how, except perhaps by singing. Jen Shyu, so striking on Steve Coleman’s new CD, sang and played percussion, lute, piano and other instruments, and sang Taiwanese folk music, original songs that idiomatically fit with the folk music, and improvised seamlessly. She is quite a singer, with a great sound, pitch and breath support, and her set was mesmerizing, ritualistic and melancholy. Her own material had her, at times, singing tonally while accompanying herself atonally, and beyond the impressive technique it was exciting in the unnerving way that Schoenberg intended but could not quite achieve.

The outliers even in this extended group were C. Spencer Yeh (a/k/a Burning Star Core) and Chris Mann. Yeh did not sing in a strict sense, but he vocalized with every part of his neck and head that could produce sound. Clicking, gurgling, inhaling and exhaling, rubbing his cheeks against the microphone, even pouring water into his mouth, he produced a series of distinct sounds at an intense pace. Past the novelty, after only a little time it was apparent that he was building phrases, then repeating them, putting sections together into larger scale improvisations. As unusual as the sound material was, and it clearly was unsettling to much of the audience, his musical sense was fundamentally simple and, like an experimental version of Spike Jones, he made music with sounds set in time and space, not just notes on lined paper. It was impressive, most of all his sense of knowing exactly when the music he was creating came to an end. What Mann does is even more extreme and still perhaps the most traditional, archaic type of art. He performed his Art of the Diff a piece I saw him do two months earlier at a tribute to Kenneth Gaburo. Mann performs by sitting in front of his audience and giving a monologue, and in content, style and dramatic technique, the monologue comes off as an argument, with himself, about the nature of art and creativity. It comes out in mercurial, rapid fire sentence fragments, as he essentially interrupts himself or, seemingly, looses his train of thought. Since the previous performance, the piece seems more lived in and assured, which makes for a feeling of lightness and greater velocity even as the overall pace has slowed down and created more of a regular pulse. The work is quiet, and Mann is sensitive to external stimuli, which in this case meant the sound of someone practicing the piano from another part of the building, and two people who weren’t hip to the scene and left. He ends it by saying, with a smile, “any questions?” It is unusual, opaque, fascinating, but perhaps the best way to think about it is that Mann is doing what Homer did, he’s telling a story, however different in content and form. He’s singing.

Bop Till You Drop

At the end of these short days in December, there are nights full of great music. Try and get out and catch some of this stuff (none of it holiday music!):

Read this great little piece about Steven Blier then go see him at the New York Festival of Song program Manning the Canon . . . at Issue Project Room you can hear the Darmstadt Essential Repertoire festival – Sequenzas, Knee Plays, Gesang der Jünglinge, et. al. – it’s an amazing program of 20th century experimental masterpieces . . . the ACO has a concert and the Chiara Quartet is returning . . . Matt Marks is working on an opera about a cannibal . . . the Yale Percussion Group will be at Zankel . . . an amazing Interpretations event for Muhal Richard Abrams . . . Ken Thompson is at Music at First . . . Miller Theater hosts a portrait of Pierre Boulez, with the man in attendance . . . the second concert in the Pacifica Quartet’s Shostakovich cycle . . . more CONTACT! . . . The Dither Quartet has a workshop project with new electric guitar music . . . Catch the excellent Ideal Bread playing the music of Steve Lacy at the Cornelia Street Cafe . . . there’s Baroque music in Brooklyn . . . Film Forum and Carnegie Hall are both honoring Toru Takemitsu . . .

And of course there’s a holiday event, both free and encouraging participation, Unsilent Night. I’ll see you at that one, I’m sure.

UPDATED: additional listings