Two concerts I attended recently were very different but both really excellent in their own ways.
On Thursday, December 2, I attended the New York Festival of Song's presentation titled "Queering the Canon" at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City. Although I've been reading about their programs for years, and have some recordings that seem to have emanated from their activities, this was my first time actually attending a NYFOS presentation, and I was impressed with the high quality of everything about the event: Excellent singers, imaginative program, inspired piano accompaniment, and detailed program notes with song texts, in a hall that is just the right size for such an event. NYFOS artistic director Steven Blier wrote in the notes that this program fulfilled his longtime dream to put together a thematic song program dedicated to "celebrating gay men in song." He was encouraged in this by baritone Jesse Blumberg, who is not gay but is certainly gay-friendly to judge by the songs he sings and composers with whom he collaborates. On this program Blumberg was joined by bass Matt Boehler, tenor Scott Murphree, and baritone Matthew Worth, and Blier provided the narration and all the piano accompaniments.
The imaginative program presented songs by 16 composers, most of them gay, to a variety of texts, all either directly or implicitly alluding to the lives of gay men. Some of the selections were very familiar, but most were quite unfamiliar, some by composers and and writers of whom I'd not previously heard. We heard solo songs, duets, and ensemble numbers. Blier's running commentary provided the rationale for including particular songs, and many witty asides. I found the entire thing massively entertaining, and was impressed by all the singers. Blumberg is a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed Murphree's singing at a recent 5 Boroughs Music Festival lieder recital in Brooklyn. Worth and Boehler were also excellent, and Boehler's deep bass notes provided some comic touches along the way. There was even a bit of acting out for some of the songs.
On Saturday night, December 4, I was in Carnegie Hall for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert.
For me, the highlight was Beethoven's 7th Symphony, which I regard as probably the best of the nine symphonies on many accounts – not least that every movement seems to me to have a perfection of form that is unsurpassed in all his symphonies, there are wonderful themes that are imaginatively developed, and the symphony is particularly pervaded with lively rhythmic interest. Each movement has a characteristic rhythmic snap to its main theme that provides a unifying device to the movement. There is no slow movement – rare for a Beethoven symphony – the nearest to it being the second movement Allegretto, which is a moderately paced march-like piece. It's true that some conductors treat it as a default slow movement and play it too slowly. Too slowly is never an issue with this conductorless chamber orchestra, which flavors lively tempi, crisp rhythms, and very expressive playing. This is a complicated piece to put together, and usually a showcase for virtuoso conductors. Under the circumstances, a conductorless performance might be expected to be cautious and mechanical, but anybody who would expect that would not know Orpheus, which is absolutely fearless about pieces like this and provided an exuberant, swiftly-paced performance that felt even faster since they eliminated the exposition repeat in the first movement – a wise choice for such a fluently forward-moving piece.
The concert began with Samuel Barber's neo-classical Capricorn Concerto, which emulates a baroque concerto grosso with a soloist concertino of flute, oboe and trumpet against the ripieno of the orchestra strings. I've never really warmed to this piece, finding it a bit too abstract for my taste. My favorite part of Barber is usually the wonderful lyrical effusions normally found in his works, but I find this piece to be on the arid side and lacking in really good tunes. The Orpheus players produced an immaculate performance, but didn't really move me through no fault of theirs. The soloists were Susan Palma-Nidel, flute, Matt Dine, oboe, and Carl Albach, trumpet.
The other work on the program was Benjamin Britten's French-language song cycle, Les Illuminations, setting poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. Kate Royal was the soprano soloist. She's a British singer with a high clear voice. My impression was that her enunciation was mushy, since I had difficulty following her French. Although the sound was beautiful, the sense of the poetry was not there. Orpheus seemed very much on top of the music and there was excellent coordination with the singer, despite the lack of a conductor to hold things together visibly. I would love to hear Ms. Royal in something in English! In this piece, I've heard recordings by tenors and sopranos and I tend to prefer the tenors, since I find their enunciation of text easier to follow. Actually, I wonder what some of my favored countertenors – Jaroussky, Daniels, Asawa – would do with this piece?