Challenging Ideas and Tonalities at the New York Festival of Song
This season’s concluding concert of the New York Festival of Song series Tuesday night at the Baryshnikov Arts Center was characteristically challenging and entertaining. NYFOS’ definition of art-song takes the idea of lieder (essentially, operatic songs without the opera) and brings it into the 21st century, musically and lyrically. Some of the works on the bill were basically opera songs but a lot weren’t, with a nod to the adventurous downtown 80s and what are turning out to be the equally adventurous teens. Put together by New Yorker scribe (and prolific art-song writer and advocate) Russell Platt, it teamed a talented parade of singers with versatile pianist Thomas Sauer, who deserved top billing here for tackling a dizzyingly diverse, technically challenging series of compositions and pulling them off with flair and sensitivity. Platt explained that this year’s theme was “a snapshot of Generation X music,” which for him meant taking “an irreverent tone to text.” Which when you think about it is punk rock, pure and simple: it may be more comforting than accurate to assign credit to GenX for much more than effeteness, at least as far as the arts are concerned.
The highlight of the evening was a trio of songs by Lisa Bielawa, a powerful and eclectic composer who looks back far beyond her own generation – in this particular case, to Franz Kafka. Violinist/singer Carla Kihlstedt smartly chose to read the texts before launching into the songs (written for her by Bielawa around 2001-03), alongside Matthias Bossi on pump organ and percussion. A parable of the longing to find order in disorder was vividly anxious, lit up with the violin’s quavery intensity, overtones and glissandos against the organ’s placid tones, followed by a more playful take on existential angst and then a piece about the nature of ghosts illustrated with sepulchrally muted pizzicato. Kihlstedt followed this with her own take on a Robert Louis Stevenson poem on a “nevermore” theme, which she’d discovered via a Google search (could it be that the Edgar Allen Poe estate or its equivalent needs to pay off Google to get top billing for that particular keyword?). She began on trumpet-violin, again contrasting against the warm washes of the organ, eventually switching to violin for a bitingly rustic, minor-key theme that eventually came full circle, ending pensively and unresolved.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night was a parody of MTA snafus and subway announcements written by Gilda Lyons, delivered with grand guignol drama, a-cappella, by Sarah Wolfson and Blythe Gaissert. In its own cruelly sarcastic way, it was just as Kafkaesque as Bielawa’s songs. Harold Meltzer also contributed three settings of texts by Ohio poet James Wright, given coloratura nuance by tenor Kyle Bielfield over piano melodies that ranged from creepy, inchoate iciness, to Pat Metheny-ish meandering against a central tone, to allusions to gospel and the blues, all handled deftly by Sauer. A sadness pervaded all of them, roadkill juxtaposed against dead dreams and unrequited homoeroticism.
And Platt also included a quartet of his own songs, mining a similarly dispirited Midwestern milieu via texts by Paul Muldoon set to noirish, chromatically-fueled piano that ranged from bracing atonalism to neoromantic angst. Bass-baritone Mischa Bouvier dignified these portraits of a smaller, claustrophobic world (Platt spent some time there after college and clearly wanted out) with a raw, rugged intensity, finding drama in the seemingly mundane without going over the top, at least for the most part.
Not everything on the bill was as successful. Sometimes the stylized “scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the fandango” operatics (Bouvier found himself rolling his R’s periodically although he was singing in English) overwhelmed the content. And a coy hail-mary pass, sort of a composer’s equivalent of “the dog ate my homework,” should have been left on the rehearsal room floor. Still, it was good to see a full house respond enthusiastically to a program that so often embraced the cutting edge.
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