Herewith some observations about two encounters with art song in recent days: a wonderful concert of new songs presented by the New York Festival of Song at the Jerome Robbins Theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and a new recording of Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise, by baritone Tom Meglioranza and pianist Reiko Uchida.
The New York Festival of Song, which presents an extensive series of song recitals at Merkin Concert Hall (north of Lincoln Center), has launched a new series called NYFOS Next, putting the spotlight on contemporary composers who are emerging on the classical concert scene. The premise is to engage a composer to “curate” a concert by selecting the songwriters and, in some cases, commissioning them to produce new songs for the occasion, and then to introduce each number from the stage. Their initial program, presented on Tuesday, February 5, employed Kevin Puts as the composer-curator, at the intimate Jerome Robbins Theater in the Baryshnikov Center. Mr. Puts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 2012 for his opera, “Silent Night,” which received its first performances at the Minnesota Opera, and has some forthcoming performances scheduled, most imminently in Philadelphia this coming weekend. In addition to ending the program with three arias from “Silent Night” with piano accompaniment, Mr. Puts wrote a new song to open the program. Other composers represented on the recital included Christopher Theofanidis, Ricky Ian Gordon, Christopher Cerrone, Tarik O’Regan, Andrew Haile Austin, David Lang, Harold Meltzer, and Derek Bermel. Many of the composers were present and made comments about their compositions, and Mr. Gordon accompanied his song as well. Mr. Puts, who is also an accomplished pianist, accompanied in his compositions. Michael Barrett, Associate Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, accompanied the other songs, and violinist Charles Yang participated in two of the songs (singing in the ensemble for one of the).
At the outset, Mr. Puts confessed that he only recently became involved in song with the commission to write his opera, and he required considerable assistance from Mr. Barrett in identifying appropriate composers to participate in this program. Many of the songs that were presented were written in response to a commission from Opera America to celebrate the opening of their new National Opera Center, just a few blocks away from the Baryshnikov Center, and they are available on a compact disc recording released by Opera America.
Three singers (plus, as noted above, briefly Mr. Yang), participated in the program: soprano Stacey Tappan, Mezzo-Soprano Krista River, and baritone Jesse Blumberg. Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Mr. Blumberg, and may assume that was my main reason for attending the concert. But I’m also a big fan of Mr. Puts, and his association with the program was another big draw for me. I was present at the New York Philharmonic premiere of a piece he wrote for them several years ago, and I was so impressed that I began searching for recordings of his music. It took a while, but eventually I was able to assemble a fairly extensive collection of his work, almost all of it instrumental music. My favorite Kevin Puts composition is his Violin Concerto, which was written for Ft. Worth Symphony concertmaster Michael Shih when Mr. Puts was composer-in-residence for that orchestra, and is available on a recording made at the world premiere performance and released by the FWSO on its own label. (Mr. Puts’ Third Symphony, also a very attractive piece, is on the same release, together with music by Gabriela Frank.) It’s definitely worth seeking out (there’s a link on Mr. Puts’ website, or go directly the Ft. Worth Symphony’s website), and this concerto should be taken up by other violinists, as it deserves to be a repertory piece. For sheer beauty it can’t be beaten.
Anyway, back to the songs: This was quite a varied lot, but all the songs had in common a generally tonal language, a strong sensitivity to the meaning of text, and, on this occasion, excellent performances. Although it was announced at the beginning that Mr. Blumberg was experiencing a touch of “under the weather” (which resulted in dropping one of the scheduled songs), he sounded fine to me, full of voice and fully engaged in all of his numbers. Ms. Tappan and Ms. River were pleasant discoveries for me, and I will seek out Ms. Tappan’s new recording of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon (whose song “Bless This Our Lovely Home,” one of the Opera America commissions, was presented with Mr. Gordon at the keyboard, as noted above). I can second Mr. Puts’ comment, introducing this song, that Gordon is definitely one of our most gifted contemporary song writers, and this song — which can be found on the Opera America CD — is a prime example of his art.
The song that I enjoyed the most was Derek Bermel’s “Lucky Number,” which was scored for the ensemble of all three singers, Mr. Yang (violin and voice), and piano, with a text by Wendy Walters. This was among the most “listener-friendly-at-first-hearing” pieces on the program, having a strong whiff of Broadway about it. By the way, I just saw a laudatory review in Gramophone of a new recording of Bermel’s music by Alan Pierson and Alarm Will Sound on the Canteloupe label, so — Bermel fanciers alert! I’ve placed my order…
Finally, at the conclusion of the concert, the three arias from “Silent Night” were sung by Jesse Blumberg and Stacey Tappan. Spectacular! Somebody in New York has to put on this opera! Soon!!
Turning to my other observation:
I’ve been a fan of the combination of Tom Meglioranza and Reiko Uchida since I heard their recital at Weill Recital Hall (Carnegie Hall) many years ago. I’d been invited to attend by Jorge Martin, the composer whose commissioned work was being performed. I fell in love with Meglioranza’s singing and attended more concerts, communicating my enthusiasm to him. I was very enthusiastic about his first self-produced recital disc with Uchida, a collection of Schubert songs selected and arranged to make up a thematic cycle. And I was delighted when the snail-mail brought a welcome surprise late last week: a new Meglioranza disc, this time of Schubert’s great Winterreise song-cycle, again with Uchida.
I’ve listened to it several times, put it on my ipod for portable listening, and become totally absorbed. (It’s now the second Winterreise on my ipod, sharing the honors with Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes, so they are in good company.) Meglioranza’s art deepens, the collaboration with Uchida goes from strength to strength, and there is nothing less than first-class about this self-produced recording (which is available from CDBaby.com). Too many lieder recordings these days are released without texts and translations. This one comes with a song-by-song summary on the cardboard album and a booklet with original texts and Meglioranza’s English translations, as well as photographs and biographies of the performers. The studio recording has a bit less resonance than the prior Schubert disc (which was made in the auditorium at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Upper Manhattan), which affects slightly one’s perception of the voice. It sounds a bit lighter and less full on the bottom than in the prior recording, but all the virtues I know from past exposure to Meglioranza’s work are there, not least the deep engagement with the text, the fine intonation and rhythmic sense, the wide range of dynamics, and the close collaboration with Uchida, whose sensitive accompaniments play a major role in the success of this recording. (I’m no expert in German dialect, but no less an expert than the late, great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is quoted in the booklet reacting to Meglioranza’s prior Schubert disc with praise for his German; DFD suggests he must be of German descent to be an American who sings German so well!)
Anybody who hasn’t discovered this combination of performers should rush to get the recording. If you’re a Schubert fan who already has ‘too many Winterreises’ in your collection, get the earlier recital, which includes plenty of less-frequently-performed songs that are nonetheless all winners! But how can any collection of Schubert lieder have ‘too many Winterreises’??