Weekend Trifecta: City Center Encores; Miller Theater Early Music; 5Boroughs Music Festival

Headlined above are the presenters of my three musical events of the weekend, each entertaining, enthralling, and worth attending.

Saturday afternoon I was at New York City Center for the Encores presentation of "Bells Are Ringing," a 1950s musical with music by Jule Styne and book and lyrics by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green.  This was written as a vehicle for Judy Holliday, starring as Ella Peterson, the young telephone answering service employee who becomes hopeless entangled in the lives of her clients.  Our modern-day Judy in this production was Kelli O'Hara, who was excellent in the role.  Rob Berman, music director and conductor, whipped up a sparkling performance, and the Encores production crew manufactured their usual miraculous settings, managing to suggest a variety of scenes with just a few props, hangings, and the usual great costumes.  Will Chase made great work of the leading male role, the "blocked" playwright whose voice seduces our Ella….  I would find his voice seductive, too.  Too bad Encores are revived for only a brief run.  This would have deserved a longer exposure.

Then Saturday evening, for a complete change of pace, I was at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square for the Early Music series presented by Miller Theatre at Columbia University.  First up for this season was New York Polyphony, an excellent vocal ensemble made up of Geoffrey Williams (counter-tenor), Geoffrey Silver (tenor), Christopher Herbert (baritone) and Craig Phillips (bass-baritone), specializing in polyphonic music of the Renaissance.  The first half of their program was devoted to "Giants of the Flemish Renaissance" — desPrez, Crecquillon and Brumel — and the second half to the great English Renaissance voices of Tye, Power, Dunstaple, Cornysh, Lambe, and an anonymous bit from the Worcester Fragments.  I'd previously encountered this group on the sampler programs offered early each season by Gotham Early Music Scene (GEMS), but this was the first time I heard them sing an entire program — and they are astonishingly good.  They particularly specialize in producing ethereal tones in high, smooth harmony, but they varied their manner to accommodate the diverse pieces on their program.  The entire program was made up of religious music, mainly from the 15th century, but they offered a secular encore that felt out of place in the resonant space of St. Mary's – Janequin's "La Guerre."   Anybody curious in exploring this group further should seek out their marvelous CD – "Tudor City"  (little in-joke for the New Yorkers), featuring slightly later fare — music of the Tudor Masters from the early 16th century — filled out with some contemporary music that blends quite well.  And a word to the Miller Theater folks: Thanks for providing texts and translations, but next time — please, bigger type!  The tiny print is difficult to follow in dim church lighting.

Finally, on Sunday, out to the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music near Grand Army Plaza for a vocal recital presented by 5 Boroughs Music Festival to commemorate the 150th birthday of Hugo Wolf and the 200th birthday of Robert Schumann.  The legendary collaborative pianist Martin Katz was invited to organize the event around the talents of four wonderful young singers: soprano Jennifer Zetlan, mezzo Liza Forrester, tenor Scott Murphree, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.  The selection of music was superb, but I was less enthusiastic about the sound of the performances in this particular space.  The Brooklyn Conservatory is in the heart of brownstone Brooklyn, in an old townhouse.  What was once a magnificent living room of the type common on the first floor of such buildings is now a performance space with improvised stage.  The problem for me was that in this enclosed, relatively low-ceiling space, the piano was just too loud much of the time, overbalancing the singers, and they were compensating by singing at times as if they were at the opera rather than singing lieder to a more intimate audience in a private home.  All four of the singers regularly sing opera in their budding professional careers, but I've heard Blumberg sing lieder in the past, and under better conditions he has made a better impression.  I actually enjoyed much of the concert – certainly they performed with flare, and Katz produced bravura performances – but the entire thing could have been taken down several notches and been even more effective.  All of these singers would be worth hearing under more favorable acoustic conditions. Despite these reservations, I found the program enjoyable and all of the singers made excellent contributions.  Scott Murphree, in particular, has that special quality of seeming to be projecting directly to each listener, which makes hearing lieder in a non-concert-hall setting such a special occasion.

5 Boroughs has announced two future concerts furthering their mission of bringing music to all the boroughs of New York.  On January 23, they will present 17th century Italian music at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Long Island City (Queens), and on March 11, they will be presenting music by Astor Piazzolla at the Hostos Center for the Arts (Bronx).  Check out their website for details: www.5bmf.org.


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