No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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Notes on the Program by Steven Blier for Four Islands
March 14, 2017 at Merkin Concert Hall. Buy tickets here >

NOTES ON THE PROGRAM

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.

Michael and I have talked about exploring the idea of island songs for some years. As everyone waits impatiently for spring to arrive, what could be more enticing than to take a cruise around the world and hear the songs of its islands? Sailing from Ireland to Cuba and thence to Madagascar, we’ll finally dock in Manhattan, my island of choice.

IRELAND

The Irish speak in music. Anyone who has visited the Emerald Isle knows that the lilt of the Irish accent turns the most prosaic utterance—“Would you like butter on that scone?”—into something resembling song. Irish music, like African-American music, was that of an oppressed people. It has ancient roots, drawing on haunting modes including the five-note pentatonic scale and the ethereal sound of the Irish harp.

We’ll start with a pair of traditional Irish tunes: “The Palatine’s Daughter” and “Siúl a Ghrá,” which marks NYFOS’s very first foray into Gaelic. The first of these is a sprightly jig with a long pedigree. Like many Irish folk songs, it is based on an old tune, a hornpipe called “Garden of Daisies.” It is a story of assimilation: the Palatines were a Northern European, German-speaking population forced out of their country, the Palatinate, by war in the early eighteenth century. England offered them asylum, and in 1711 three hundred Palatine families arrived in Dublin, eventually forming enclaves throughout Ireland. As you can see, some of them did quite well in their new homeland.

For romance, we’ll turn to a pair of folk song settings John Corigliano composed for the Irish/American bard Robert White in 1990. Corigliano accompanies the voice not with piano but with a flute obbligato, exploiting it to evoke a surprisingly wide range of colors. “The Foggy Dew” is not the wry Burl Ives tune most of us know, but a flirtatious story of courtship set to a sensuous pentatonic melody. “She Moved through the Fair,” a classic recorded by everyone from Pete Seeger to Led Zeppelin, evokes a mysterious nighttime encounter between two lovers.

At the age of 19, the English composer Sir Arnold Bax read W. B. Yeats’s The Wanderings of Oisin. “The Celt within me stood revealed,” he later wrote. Ireland became his passion, and on his frequent visits he formed close ties to the people and their culture. He chose to “follow the dream,” moved to Dublin for over a decade, and adopted an Irish pseudonym, Dermot O’Byrne. Under that name, he published poetry, short stories, and plays. One of his most important books was A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems, a response to the Easter Uprising in 1916. Bax had been close to many of the important Irish leaders who were massacred. His passionate recounting of the tragedy was banned in Britain. Bax’s music also “follows the dream,” with its broad, bardic sweep and modal harmony. The darkly brooding song “As I Came Over the Grey, Grey Hills” finds emotional clarity in Joseph Campbell’s opaque words, leading to a climax that is both shimmering and weighty.

“Eileen Óg” is the handiwork of Houston Collisson and Percy French, a hugely successful songwriting team from the late 1890s. They produced a large repertoire of popular songs and operas, including the evergreen “Mountains of Mourne.” Like many Irish ballads of that era, the vocal line of “Eileen Óg” has a more operatic feel than its English or American equivalents. After all, it’s scored for Irish tenor, full of blarney and high notes.

CUBA

Ever since the runaway success of Buena Vista Social Club, the music of Cuba has become popular and ubiquitous. Who doesn’t love a habanera? But underneath the rhythmic verve lies a darker story of the island’s social and political strife. Racial tensions ran high, just as they did—and do—in our country, and slavery was the fate of the Afro-Cubans until 1886. But as the years rolled by the island’s two cultures gradually began to intermingle. Cuban music was there to document the grafting of Spanish elegance onto the complex throb of African rhythms, to form that unique sound we love today. It evolved slowly. In 1900, white dance bands didn’t use drums, while black street bands relied on all kinds of percussion, most of it homemade. The Spanish elements suppressed, resisted, slowly co-opted, and finally embraced the rhythms of the oppressed Afro-Cubans. Much of this was due to the new popularity of radios, which allowed proper middle-class people to enjoy the animal abandon of criollas and danzones in the privacy of their homes. Soon they even felt comfortable about stepping out onto the dance floor to do the rumba, which had previously been banned as indecent.

If the Spanish component of Cuban music can be called its right wing and the African component its left wing, Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes (1874-1944) was a staunch rightist. He wrote his hit tune “Tú” when he was 18 years old. Fuentes lived long enough to understand that the progress of his country’s music would inevitably include contributions from both parties. Cuba’s music would never be able to remain “racially pure” and free of Afro-Cuban influences as he would have wanted it.

Each of the composers we are hearing is a spokesman for a different part of Cuba’s musical history. Emilio Grenet led the way in blending Cuba’s disparate cultures, setting Afro-Cuban poetry to music of sly sophistication. Sindo Garay, part Spanish and part South American Indian, was a natural talent, illiterate until he was 16, and never able to read music. Yet his gift for trova—lyrical, guitar-accompanied song—earned him an undying place in the Cuban pantheon. His hit tune “Guarina” has the elegance of a bel canto song. Ernesto Lecuona enjoyed the most successful career of all, with a legacy of over four hundred songs, fifty-three theater pieces, eleven film scores, and a huge repertoire of salon pieces for piano. Lecuona’s fusion of the classical and the popular, the African and the Spanish, decisively turned Cuban music a worldwide phenomenon.

Alejandro García Caturla was among the first Cubans to receive recognition in Europe as a classical composer. This is all the more remarkable because he combined his life as a musician with a second career as a judge. While he was a law student, he met Alejo Carpentier, one of Cuba’s greatest writers and activists. Carpentier opened the world of French surrealism to the composer, which gave Caturla the impetus to go to Paris and study composition with Nadia Boulanger. Carpentier was one of the first promoters of Afrocubanismo, and spread the message while he was living in Paris during the late 1920s by promoting Cuban musicians and painters. Middle-class Cubans may have disdained the new wave of Afro-Cuban art, but Parisians had embraced primitivism for over a decade and responded vociferously to the new energy from Latin America and the Caribbean.

While he was attending a festival in Barcelona, Caturla received a wire from Carpentier in Paris commissioning him to set his “Dos Poemas Afro-Cubanos” (of which “Juego Santo” is the second song) to music for a concert scheduled to take place in a matter of weeks. Caturla rose to the challenge, and the premiere at Salle Gaveau by soprano Lydia Rivera with Ernesto Lecuona at the piano resulted in superlative reviews. His European career was assured

Alas, it ended too soon. At home Caturla waged a campaign against corruption and became known as a tough fighter. In 1940, at the age of 34, he became involved with a case of spouse abuse. The defendant thought, wrongly, that his case would end up in Caturla’s court. Rather than subject himself to the rigorous implementation of the law, he shot Caturla in the street. One of Cuba’s brightest lights was extinguished.

Cuba’s musical theater began in the 1800s with a proliferation of satirical sainetes—disposable, one-act operettas like sitcoms, in which social and political issues could be aired in a light-hearted way. Starting in the early 1920s, Cuban artists started to give their operettas a grander framework by starting a Cuban zarzuela repertoire, grafting both their dance rhythms and their social concerns onto the popular Spanish light-opera formula. It flowered during one of Cuba’s grimmest political eras, when the island fell under the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. Life became increasingly violent, underground groups tried to topple the regime, and the Machadistas retaliated. In this dangerous atmosphere, zarzuelas were at once a popular, tuneful entertainment as well as a safe way to focus on difficult social issues, especially interracial romance. Most of the stories were set in the past, to avoid direct parallels with current events. The plots usually involved a mulata, her faithful black suitor, and her fickle, exploitative white paramour. Such is the case with José Mauri’s La esclava, one of the first in the new genre. The heroine Matilda pours out her heart with the abandon of a Mascagni heroine—and ultimately perishes like one as well.

MADAGASCAR

Irish composers and poets don’t need to work hard to evoke their homeland. The Irish spirit resides in their artistic DNA. But Maurice Ravel had to draw on all his sophisticated craft to create a musical Madagascar in his 1926 vocal chamber work Chansons madécasses. It was commissioned by the formidable American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who funded an impressive array of twentieth century masters from Copland (Appalachian Spring) to Barber (The Hermit Songs), and also built the concert hall at the Library of Congress. She was a passionate advocate for modern music, and insisted “not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document.”

When Coolidge telegrammed Ravel with her request for a new vocal work, she asked if it could be scored for piano, flute, and cello. At that moment, Ravel was re-examining a book of poems by Evariste Parny on the subject of Madagascar. Ravel chose three of Parny’s poems that fired his imagination, and got to work on what turned out to be a ground-breaking work, the Chansons madécasses.

Ravel had first come into contact with Parny’s poems in 1900 when he was a student. That was also the year of the Exposition universelle de 1900, where Madagascar had a well-attended pavilion featuring an enormous scale model of the island. During the day there were short concerts of native music, which many think Ravel attended. Certainly there is nothing else like the Chansons madécasses in Ravel’s oeuvre. Each of the three instruments is completely independent of the others, and Ravel pushes them to their limits in order to make unusual sound effects. The low register of the flute becomes a trombone-like war cry in the second song, the pizzicato cello in the last song turns into an African tambour, the high cello harmonics sound like a Malagasy wooden flute, and the piano ostinatos become throbbing gongs. In the madécasses, every instrument plays in a different key from the others, and sometimes in no recognizable key at all. The net effect is astonishing, erotic, languorous, and startlingly fierce in the middle movement, where the speaker admonishes his listeners to be wary of the invading white man.

Evariste Parny (1753-1814) never actually visited Madagascar, though he was born in that part of the world—the Île de Bourbon in the Indian Ocean. But he was fascinated by the culture of the island. Parny was a fervent anti-colonialist and published his Chansons madécasses as a way of bringing Malagasy culture to the understanding of western readers. He claimed to have adapted his texts from a volume of Madagascar poems from the early eighteenth century, though it is now thought they were entirely his own creation. Parny described a world where the women were the workers and the men lived a life of ease. “They are passionate about music and dance; their songs are simple, lovely, and always melancholy.”  The native form of expression was not poetry, but an elevated, florid prose which Parny recreated in his work. As a result, his Chansons madécasses became one of the earliest examples of prose poetry.

The Chansons madécasses are a musical exploration of a culture that the composer created primarily out of his imagination, and a social portrait of a place the poet never visited. From these elements emerges a work of great truth, and one whose early-1920s Modernism still startles the listener with its originality.

MANHATTAN

There are countless songs about my home town—I should know, I just listened about two hundred of them. The themes include our perfect bagels, the inconvenience of tourists, the nostalgia for buildings that have long been torn down, the disdain for other boroughs and nearby states.

But I wanted to avoid the clichés and capture the true spirit of New York through a series of character portraits. First up is Liza Elliott, the magazine editor who is the heroine of Lady in the Dark by Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Moss Hart. All of the show’s musical sequences are enactments of Liza’s dreams—she is in psychoanalysis because of her inability to make important decisions. “One Life to Live” is her exuberant hymn to life in her “Success Dream,” delivered as a soapbox speech at Columbus Circle.

We next meet Cathy, the heroine of Jason Robert Brown’s autobiographical musical The Last Five Years. We are with her at a series of unsuccessful musical theater auditions, as well as a lunch date with her father where she pours out her frustration. If you ever wondered what distracted thoughts flit through a performer’s mind when she is onstage, fasten your seatbelt and listen up. Jason Robert Brown’s song is devastatingly funny—and sad—and accurate.

“Through a Keyhole” was written for Irving Berlin’s smash hit revue As Thousands Cheer, but the song never made it to the stage. Its lyric was far too risqué for Depression-era Broadway, and it got cut. Berlin, of course, is best known for wholesome Americana like “God Bless America” and “Easter Parade.” But the man had a devilish sense of humor and could give Cole Porter a run for his money when it came to sexy innuendo—he (anonymously) wrote a verse for “You’re the Top” far more salacious than any of Porter’s lyrics for the song. To this day, “Keyhole” remains unpublished. It still has the power to raise an eyebrow or two

“Litany” comes from one of John Musto’s first successes, the song cycle Shadow of the Blues. He wrote it for Christopher Trakas and me in 1985 to include on our Naumberg Award CD. Its blend of Italianate cantilena and New York blues make this a quintessential Musto tune. It is more meaningful than ever to hear Langston Hughes’ prayer for the poor people of our city. The poem is over 70 years old, the music more than 30 years old—yet they evoke contemporary New York with concise eloquence.

So does “I Happen to Like New York,” from Cole Porter’s 1930 show The New Yorkers. Here is the Manhattan I know—and the Manhattanite I am at heart, under my gentle exterior. The song is a New Yorker’s credo: you live here and the world comes to you. You take a trip abroad, i.e., you travel ten minutes across the Hudson, and you want to race home as soon as possible. Brash, confident, and wedded to the glories and indignities of city life—Porter fits it all perfectly into a New York minute.

These days the cuisine of every island in the entire world is available for takeout 24/7. Today we give you a multi-cultural musical meal, a Grubhub of song. It’s a bracing journey filled with upheavals, mysteries, hates and loves, war and peace—ending with a celebration of the island I call home, my beloved Manhattan.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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