Last year I attended the Queens, NY, premiere of the "Five Borough Songbook," a collection of 20 songs commissioned from 20 composers by the Five Boroughs Music Festival. A few weeks ago, I attended the Manhattan premiere – the same twenty songs, but a slightly different mix of singers. I was curious to hear this music a second time, having been so impressed on first hearing. So on January 12 I was in the auditorium at Baruch College in Manhattan, not only to hear the live performances but also to pick up the recording, which was released that day (and since the release has quickly climbed to number 12 on the Billboard classical list).
This is not a "live in concert" recording. Instead, taking the collection of 20 songs as a starting point, producers Glen Roven (one of the participating composers), Peter Fitzgerald, Richard Cohen, and Megan Henninger took the musicians into the Sound Associates studio during October and November, dividing up some of the songs between people who had sung them at the Brooklyn premiere and the Queens premiere (since there were cast changes between the two shows) and also involving 5BMF Artistic Director Jesse Blumberg (a noted baritone) in some of the performances even though he hadn't sung in the two concerts. The results are splendid.
Each of the composers was asked to come up with a text to set. Some looked through available published poetry, others reached out to poets for new text or devised their own. The unifying factor was that the Five Borough Songbook was not just composed by individuals who live or work in the City of New York, but would also provide musical settings for texts that somehow had something to do with New York City, the "something to do" being loosely defined. Several of the songs relate to the subway system, which is surely one of the defining features of New York. Others focus on particular places, from Times Square to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island to Coney Island Avenue. Others relate experiences, incidents, or feelings associated by the poets and/or the composers with New York. There is even some "found text," such as Lisa Bielawa's song "Breakfast in New York" which sets snippets of conversation she would overhear and jot down while eating breakfast in her favorite Queens diner.
There's even something in here for my own specialized collection of musical settings of The Psalms, as Yotam Haber set a poem by Julia Kasdorf which is based on Psalm 137 in his song "On Leaving Brooklyn."
The composers also ranged from well-established people with international reputations to those with more localized fame. In some cases this marked my first exposure to music by these composers, while in other cases I am very familiar with the work. But despite this range of reputation and experience, I thought the entire collection achieved a uniformly high standard of inspiration and quality.
With twenty different composers, there are also a wide variety of musical styles on display, demonstrating a melange of influences from Broadway to the highest of high art songs. Two things noticeably missing, however, are atonality or serial music. All of these songs sound to me like they have a tonal center, and most seemed concerned with inventing and developing lyrical lines. The enunciation of the singers is so fine and the audio engineering is so well done that one can pick up just about all the text without having to look at a printed version, but this release is also excellent in providing complete texts in the insert booklet, something that one can't necessarily count on when purchasing vocal recitals on independent labels. (This is a production of GPR Records.) (The booklet cover provides two appropriate NYC scenes, one of an MTA train, of course…. The only thing missing that would have been useful are bios of the composers and performers.)
It remains, for purposes of Google accessibility, for me to list the artists involved with this superb production. The composers are Christopher Berg, Lisa Bielawa, Tom Cipullo, Christina Courtin, Mohammed Fairouz, Renee Favand-See, John Glover, Ricky Ian Gordon, Yotam Haber, Daron Hagen, Martin Hennessy, Gabriel Kahane, Gilda Lyons, Jorge Martin, Russell Platt, Glen Roven, Matt Schickele, Richard Pearson Thomas, Christopher Tignor, and Scott Wheeler.
The singers are: Tenors Javier Abreu, Keith Jameson and Alex Richardson; Sopranos Mireille Asselin and Martha Guth; Mezzo-Sopranos Meg Bragle and Blythe Gaissert; Baritones Jesse Blumberg, Scott Dispensa, David McFerrin and David Adam Moore. Violinist Harumi Rhodes and Pianists Thomas Bagwell and Jocelyn Dueck collaborate with the singers. The pieces range from unaccompanied singing to "choral" numbers involving the entire cast at any given performance. On the recording, the songs have been arranged to present a coherent and entertaining cycle varying vocal types and instrumental participants in a way that keeps things fresh and exciting.
Favorite songs from among those presented? It would be invidious to single any out, since having heard two complete performances and listened to most of the recording twice, I have to say there is not one dud in the bunch. Every song is interesting and entertaining or moving or stimulating in its own way, and they are all worth hearing.
I hope that there can also be a sheet music publication, or at least a downloadable version of the sheet music, because this Songbook would be a wonderful source of individual numbers for singers to take up in their song recitals. There is something in here for most vocal ranges, and quite a few that limit themselves to piano accompaniment, making them more easy to integrate into a general song recital. (Perhaps in a publication of the music the composers could adapt their compositions so that all could be performed with piano accompaniment, but that would definitely undermine the distinctive flavor of some, especially those that used the violin rather than the piano as the sole instrumental collaborator.) Several of these songs would make dandy encores, and it would certainly be possible for any singer wishing to include a selection of NYC-related songs to make up a fine "suite" extracted from the book. Indeed, I can imagine an entertaining suite made up of just the subway songs…