No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
 |  Elliott Hurwitt

In 1912, when Handy published the “Memphis Blues,” the word blues was used primarily to describe an emotional state—depression, melancholy. Songs specifically about these issues did not come into being until something like 400 years after the first mentions of the “blue devils” appeared in English. Once blues songs emerged, around 1900, they had a single overriding theme: bad luck in love. There were blues about other things—bedbugs, floods, and other irritants and calamities. There were virtually no blues about political matters, not even racial ones, until many years later.




 |  Steven Blier

For many years, Michael Barrett and I discussed doing a program devoted to the blues, that quintessential American genre. But we were never sure how to tackle such a broad topic. Then our friend, the musicologist and early blues scholar Elliott Hurwitt proposed that we devote an evening to W. C. Handy, and this magically opened up the long-sought path. I’d known about Handy—famous as “The Father of the Blues”—since my boyhood. One of his songs was in some anthology I pored over as a child—could it have been The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs? I found his music sweet and old-timey, redolent of straw hats, picnics, bandstands on summer days.




 |  Steven Blier

Preparing and performing NYFOS concerts is an all-consuming endeavor. Michael Barrett, my co-leader, can attest to this. So can Charles McKay and Claire Molloy, who have masterminded the administration for some years now with tireless grace. We are in a daily (and often nightly) wind-tunnel of schedules, negotiations, translations, editing, grant-writing, note-bashing, and ensemble rehearsal. Therefore when our round-number anniversaries come up, we emerge dazedly from the trenches to mount a celebration for ourselves and our audience, feeling somewhat like a groundhog on February 2. Years ago Justin Davidson called NYFOS “the longest-running song party in New York.” He had no idea.




 |  Steven Blier

Today’s program combines a narrow focus on a single culture — the British Isles — with the wide-angle lens on four centuries of song, thereby ranging across practically the entire span of Western classical music. The purity of the Renaissance gradually gives way to the warmth of the Romantic era; doughty Victorianism yields first to […]




 |  Steven Blier

It was just three days after the last election, and I was booked for lunch with my colleague Mary Birnbaum. Our one agenda item was the NYFOS@Juilliard concert in the early spring. Mary showed up looking as if she’d come from a funeral. I’d never seen her in such a state of despair. Her first […]




 |  Steven Blier

Today is an auspicious double anniversary: the New York Festival of Song is thirty years old, and NYFOS’s Founding Advisor Leonard Bernstein is…well, nearly one hundred. He’ll officially round off his century mark on August 25, 2018. But centennial festivities are planned over the span of two full concert seasons, and NYFOS wanted to get in at the very beginning. It seemed appropriate to kick off our Pearl Anniversary by honoring one of our most important mentors. And his rousing bicentennial cantata Songfest seemed like the perfect vehicle—not just for our three-decade mark, but to raise the roof in celebration of our country’s cultural wealth and diversity.




 |  Steven Blier

I always used to joke that one of the important things Michael Barrett and I had in common was that we both came from islands: Michael was born in Guam, and I was born in Manhattan. This quip could always be counted on to bring down the house at a NYFOS concert. In recent years, though, I have started to wonder if there wasn’t some truth underlying my flippant remark. Island dwellers, whether urban or tropical, all seem to develop certain traits. We crave the proximity of water, which provides us with a comforting aquatic buffer from the rest of the world. We see ourselves as fundamentally different from (and superior to) our landlocked neighbors. We are often under attack from outside enemies, and must learn to protect ourselves from invasion.




 |  Steven Blier

Paul Bowles’ A Picnic Cantata has been something of a NYFOS signature piece ever since our late board member Morris Golde brought it to Michael Barrett’s attention in the early 1990s. I remember going with Michael to listen to it in the Lincoln Center Library Research Division—the LP was long out of print. Alternatively spiky and lyrical, utterly unpredictable, and oddly graceful, Bowles’ music won me over. We programmed it on a double bill with a concert reading of André Messager’s operetta L’amour masqué—a project so ambitious that I had to check my archives to reassure myself that my memory was not deceiving me. We should have renamed ourselves “The New York Festival of Chutzpah.”




 |  Steven Blier

There are two histories of the Rodgers family that run parallel to one another. The first celebrates the dazzling musical gifts that propelled three generations of artists, giving birth to a century of groundbreaking musicals and hundreds of indispensable songs. The second is the shadow history of three composers triumphing over tremendous adversities, some from without, many from within. Tonight we celebrate that triumph with a selection of their songs, some of them chestnuts, many of them rarities…. Notes on the Program by Steven Blier for Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel, November 1 & 3, 2016 at Merkin Concert Hall