A Baritone’s Progress – Jesse Blumberg

One of my favorite singers is baritone Jesse Blumberg. I first heard him sing at a Wolf recital at the Austrian Cultural Forum many years ago. I had gone because another singer who had recently attracted my attention, Tom Meglioranza, was on the program. I came away from the event a Blumberg fan as well, and began to look out for his other concert appearances. Over the past month, I’ve attended three of them!

On January 2, I was at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City for their annual “Green Mountain Project” program, which this year was a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Mr. Blumberg frequently sings with TENET, the early music vocal ensemble that participates in this project, and he sang as a member of the choral group and as a soloist in two numbers, the motet “Audi coelum” and the Hymn “Ave maris stella.” He also sang in this event the previous two years; in January 2012, when they performed a vespers service based on pieces from Monteverdi’s 1640 publication of sacred music mixed with pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, and the year before, when they did the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers. I thought this year’s rendition of the Vespers marked a significant advance over the previous one, as they have become even more familiar with the music. The list of soloists included many standout young musicians who are making their mark in the NYC early music scene. Scott Metcalfe, the director of Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron, conducted from the principal violin stand, and the entire project was under the artistic direction of Jolle Greenleaf, who also sang many of the soprano solos with great confidence.

I next heard Mr. Blumberg in a presentation in Brooklyn by the Five Boroughs Music Festival, an organization which he co-founded with Donna Breitzer with the goal of presenting high quality musical events in all five boroughs of New York City. The January 15 program I attended at South Oxford Space had previously been performed in Staten Island. Titled “Worter mit Freunden: An 1820s Serenade,” it consisted of music that might have been presented (with one notable exception) during a Viennese at-home musicale in the 1820s, perhaps in a home that lacked a keyboard instrument, since the songs were performed with violin and guitar accompaniment. Daniel Swenberg, a virtuoso of plucked instruments whose theorbo playing I have enjoyed on other occasions, played two early 19th century guitars, and Krista Bennion Feeney, concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, performed the violin solos and accompaniments. In addition to Schubert, there was music by Diabelli, Spohr, and Schumann (the only piece on the program that would be anachronistic, since Schumann was but a teen during the 1820s and had not yet written the song on the program, Abendlied).

Soprano Nell Snaidas joined with Jesse Blumberg to present a compelling evening of song. The Schubert lieder take on a new intimacy when accompanied by the soft tones of an early 19th century guitar rather than the more usually heard modern piano. Most of the accompaniments arranged for guitar originated with contemporaries of Schubert and were well adapted for the medium. The intimate performance hall at South Oxford Place was the perfect setting for such a program. Five Boroughs Music Festival has two more programs planned for this season: “East of the River: Levantera” at Flushing Town Hall in Queens on March 16, and “Songs for a Parisian Spring” at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Manhattan on May 5. Check out the details at www.5BMF.org. These are excellent concerts.

Finally, I heard Mr. Blumberg again last night at the most recent (and first 2013) presentation of Schubert & Co., the bold project by pianists Lachlan Glen and Jonathan Ware to present all of Schubert’s solo songs over the course of the 2012-13 concert season, assertedly the first time this has been attempted in New York (or anywhere else, as far as anyone seems to know).

Franz Schubert wrote more than 600 solo songs during his brief career. Ware and Glen have attempted to devise concert programs that will have a unifying thread apart from the common composer. Last night, the program comprised songs related to Goethe’s novel “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre,” and Mr. Glen abandoned his usual keyboard role to read excerpts from Eric Blackall’s translation at appropriate places during the program. (This gave me a personal tie to the program, since I knew Eric Blackall in passing when I was a Cornell undergraduate. He chaired the Faculty Committee on Music that managed the annual celebrity concert series on campus, and at his invitation I became a student member of that committee and served for three years with him. A delightful man, and ardent music lover!)

The singers for the evening were baritones Michael Kelly and Jesse Blumberg, bass-baritone Evan Hughes, and sopranos Raquel Gonzalez and Simone Easthope. A special guest for the evening was noted pianist Malcolm Martineau, a leading British collaborator in song recitals and recordings, who played on the second half of the program, following Jonathan Ware’s performances in the first half.

Schubert was a genius who took some time to develop, and a series including all of his songs will include some lesser numbers, as I thought was the case with some of the songs on last night’s program. Every one of his songs is worth hearing, and the particular value of this kind of undertaking is the unearthing of occasional songs that don’t deserve their current obscurity. In addition to three lengthy song cycles, two devised by the composer and one assembled from unpublished songs by his publisher after Schubert’s early death, there are a few dozen songs that regularly appear on recital programs, leaving several hundred that are rarely performed and generally unknown. Some of the unknown songs are unknown for a good reason — they are not really memorable and, in the absence of a particular thematic context, might not make much sense as stand-alone items in a vocal recital. But now and then one uncovers a forgotten gem, and that makes it all the more worthwhile for any lover of Schubert’s music to patronize these concerts. You never know what you might discover! In addition, the concerts are free, so it’s just an investment of time. And the discovery is not limited to the music. The performers at the concerts I have attended have been at a very high level. I try to attend as many concerts by Jesse Blumberg as I can, but I would also go out of my way to hear some of the other soloists from last night, especially baritone Michael Kelly, who will be performing the Winterreise cycle with Jonathan Ware this Saturday night, January 26, at 8 pm. Jesse Blumberg will make a return appearance to the series in March.

Schubert & Co. has a website listing the entire schedule of concerts. Their usual venue is Central Presbyterian Church, Park Avenue near 63rd Street, and the time for most of them is Sundays at 6 pm. The Winterreise is a departure, originally scheduled around the availability of Sanford Sylvan and his regular accompanist Bryan Zeger, but a cancellation due to illness opened up the program and Kelly volunteered to substitute. Although I can’t make it due to a conflicting concert — I can’t miss an opportunity to hear NY Polyphony, performing on the Miller Theatre Early Music series — I urge Schubert lovers to be there. Kelly and Ware are definitely worth hearing in this music.

That brings me up to date on my concert doings this season. One thing to add about Jesse Blumberg, however. One of his great accomplishments is the premiere recording of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Green Sneakers” song cycle, and he will be performing the cycle with Mr. Gordon as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series later this season. That is another event I wish I could attend, but for a conflict, but I urge anybody who loves contemporary American art song to put it on their calendar.  This is terrific music, and hearing it sung by the Blumberg collaborating with the composer should be very special.  Tickets are available on the Lincoln Center website.

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