No Song is Safe From Us

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This program takes its inspiration from an opera — Mozart’s Cosí fan tutte — and a movie, Max Ophuls’ La ronde, which was based on the hugely controversial play by Arthur Schnitzler, Reigen. Both works are about the disruptive interplay of love and lust, fidelity and libido, id and superego. In our concert two couples meet and fall in love, but the honeymoon fades. Soon the guys feel trapped and the women feel betrayed, and then all hell breaks loose. The men experiment (including a fling with one another), while the girls drop all inhibitions and indulge their sexual whims. Wild oats sown, the four come warily back together with more experience, more wisdom, more doubts — and fuller hearts.

Each of the four chapters demanded its own language and musical genre. The couples fall in love to French romantic art song, which evokes that wonderful moment of infatuation when life sparkles with promise, the spirit shimmers, and the words lovers exchange are perhaps more beautiful for the way they sound than for what they actually mean. But when that moment wears off and reality sets in, things suddenly get more literal. “But you said,” “But I never meant,” “I just can’t stand…!” Suddenly we go from wings of song to the language of negotiation, recrimination, and comedy: English. English is also the best language for Act III, “Philandering.” After all, you don’t want to miss any of the juicy details. But German song seemed right for the closing section. Lieder offered the most beautiful, complex examples of mature love tinged with loneliness and betrayal. For a reflective coda, I drew on a Spanish song by the Catalan composer Manuel Oltra set to a Lorca poem. Once again life vibrates with possibilities— and memories.

Tonight’s playlist careens from the sublime to the ridiculous. Love is at once the highest expression of humanity and an unruly biological urge, a blissful merging and a litigious, daily negotiation. All of our composers and lyricists are exposing the exalted, messy truth about love — Schubert and Irving Berlin, Fauré and Jason Robert Brown, Brahms and Ed Kleban. A few of the composers, classical icons like Saint-Saëns and Strauss, won’t require biographical sketches for experienced concert-goers. But there are a some lesser-known pieces in the program about which you may be curious. Below: a quick guide to those recherché numbers.

The two Stephen Sondheim songs are comparative rarities from this often-sung composer. “Two Fairy Tales” was written for the two ingénues in A Little Night Music, Hendrik and Anne. Its dazzling wit shed a bit of light on their characters, but it did nothing to advance the story in Act II when the action needs the most velocity. Sondheim slyly recycled “Two Fairy Tales” as an instrumental piece: it became the tedious piano exercise played by Desirée’s daughter Frederika.

“Country House” comes from the 1987 London production of Follies. Sondheim and his book writer William Goldman made a conscious attempt to add more comedy to their brilliant but problematic musical. To that end they tweaked the libretto and added three new songs including “Country House,” sung by the wealthy, unhappily married Phyllis and Ben. In the 1971 Broadway script they had dialogue scenes but they never sang together. Sondheim and Goldman eventually withdrew the London version of Follies as a failed experiment, preferring the disquieting original. Still, this song is prime Sondheim. Smart, psychologically astute, and ultimately quite touching, “Country House” shows us a side of Phyllis and Ben Stone that makes them more sympathetic and vulnerable. And only Hugo Wolf can match Sondheim for turning perfectly inflected line-readings into melody.

Vernon Duke’s brilliance as a songwriter was matched by his bad luck and bad judgment in the theater. The Gershwin brothers took Duke, then a Russian emigré named Vladimir Dukelsky, under their wing in the 1930s, and his early projects went well. “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York” were instant classics, and his 1940 Broadway  show Cabin in the Sky was a rousing success. But thereafter his luck turned, and he produced a string of failures — the last of them, Sweet Bye and Bye never even made it out of Philadelphia previews, and was such an out-and-out disaster that Duke vowed to leave the theater forever. He eventually returned to Broadway in 1952 with Two’s Company, a revue starring Bette Davis and choreographed by the brilliant, tyrannical Jerome Robbins. Duke recycled a few of the best songs from Sweet Bye and Bye, including “Just Like a Man.” Duke’s vast songwriting skills are on full display: a patrician ability to evoke sophisticated world-weariness, and a harmonic inventiveness that begins in the song’s verse, an opportunity most other composers throw away.

Alas, Duke was defeated once again. The fly in the ointment was the show’s star, Bette Davis, a breathtakingly unmusical performer. Her grim, leaden rendition of the opening number, “Turn Me Loose on Broadway,” gives new meaning to the phrase “two left feet.” (You can check it out on YouTube if you’re brave.) She claimed illness during the run of the show — her croaking rendition of “Just Like a Man” on the original cast album certainly doesn’t sound healthy. Good or bad, Bette Davis was a huge box office draw, and when she left Two’s Company after three months the show closed.

Marc Blitzstein is most famous for his left-wing agitprop musical The Cradle Will Rock, and his classic translation of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. One doesn’t usually associate this serious artist with froth like “Modest Maid.” The song was written during World War II when Blitzstein was stationed in London working for the United States Army. His job was to promote cultural ties between Britain and the States. What better way to do so than to write a bawdy song for the great English comedienne Beatrice Lillie?

Alas, she never performed it. But twelve years later it became a showstopper for Charlotte Rae, who met Blitzstein when she played Mrs. Peachum in Threepenny at the Theater de Lys. Blitzstein’s lyrics were probably inspired by the opportunities for outdoor sex during the blackouts in wartime London — a boon not just for “modest maids” but gay men like Blitzstein.

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years had only a short off-Broadway run in 2002, but it has become a beloved work for the current generation of music theater fans and performers. It tells the story of a failed marriage with a unique narrative twist: the heroine’s songs start at the end of the relationship and move backwards to their first date, while the leading man’s plot line starts at the beginning of their love and ends with his leaving his wife. The structure of the musical is a beautiful metaphor for the inability of this young couple to synchronize their lives. Brown’s songs, especially those for his hero, Jamie (a successful writer and clearly a stand-in for Brown himself ) have startlingly vivid lyrics and a lively musical groove. For me, The Last Five Years shows Jason Robert Brown at his very best and “A Miracle Would Happen” is one of my many favorites from this show.

Everyone knows Ed Kleban’s work, even if they don’t know his name: he wrote the lyrics for the 1975 blockbuster A Chorus Line. He had a number of other musicals in the pipeline but they never came to fruition. Kleban died in 1987 at age 48, leaving a scattering of songs and unfinished projects. One of them was a musical called Warhol, the source for “Do It Yourself.” I first heard this song at a benefit for the Manhattan Theater Club in 1974, when the now-venerable MTC had just finished its second season. Bob Balaban (of Waiting for Guffman fame) was the lead singer, with Kleban and writer/producer Richard Maltby, Jr. filling in as backup chorus. Ed promised to get me a copy but fate intervened. Thirty-three years later his longtime companion, Linda Kline, finally sent me the music for a piece that had haunted my memory for decades.

Even Britten specialists don’t tend to know the duet “Underneath the Abject Willow,” which received a premiere at London’s Wigmore Hall in December 1936. Its poet, W. H. Auden, and its composer, Benjamin Britten, had become artistic collaborators and close friends the year before, and they continued to work on films (through the G.P.O. Film Unit), song cycles (On This Island and Our Hunting Fathers), and operas (Paul Bunyan) for another six years before their paths diverged. Britten was initially somewhat cowed by Auden’s keen, articulate intelligence; it took him some time to feel that he was the intellectual equal of his friend. He was also far less sexually adventurous and experienced than Auden, who wrote “Underneath the Abject Willow” as a way of encouraging the rather repressed Britten to enjoy his youth and accept himself as a gay man. Britten turns Auden’s poem into a breezy three-movement suite of dance tunes that lightly mock and taunt, and ends with Britten’s musical equivalent of a kick in the pants.

The poem for Schubert’s Licht und Liebe comes from a play by Matthäus von Collin, The Death of Duke Frederick the Valiant. As the title character thinks about happier times in his past, he hears this poem sung by two voices passing in the forest. The music probably dates from 1822 — no autograph survives — and is reminiscent of Schubert’s operatic works from that time in his life. Schubert may have lacked the theatrical skills to create successful music drama, but few can match his ability to suggest subtle, shifting gradations of emotion, or portray the human heart in all its strength and vulnerability. In three minutes Schubert evokes love’s healing light and its ability to wound, simply by juxtaposing two contrasting rhythmic patterns, dipping suddenly into the minor mode, dropping briefly into recitative, and returning to the opening theme using overlapping vocal lines that allow the music to flower.

Manuel Oltra is probably the least familiar of tonight’s classical composers. He was a Catalan musician in the lineage of NYFOS favorites Eduardo Toldrà, Frederic Mompou, and Narcís Bonet. Like his fellow Catalan composers, he prized simplicity and lyricism, and shared with them a beautiful sense of musical space. Oltra casts a spell using refined, spare musical materials — a delicate watercolorist of sound.

Eco was the first song I chose for tonight’s concert, even though at that point I really didn’t know exactly what story we would be telling. The music startled me with its beauty, and so did the brief poem by García Lorca. Its nostalgia for a perfect shared moment, bathed in a combination of warmth and coldness, seemed the perfect conclusion to any story about love. The poem became even more resonant as I found out a bit more about the meaning of “nardo,” that mysterious “spikenard plant” mentioned by Lorca. Spikenard is known more commonly in this country as valerian, and is a traditional flower at Mexican weddings. It has large white buds shaped like spheres, which is why Lorca compares them to the moon. “Nard” is also mentioned in the Bible, where it figures in the Song of Solomon, and is used to anoint the head and feet of Jesus. “Nardo” carries with it a sense of deep reverence and the holy consecration of marriage.

I admit it: Cy Coleman and Gabriel Fauré aren’t the kind of artists you’d expect to see on the same musical quilt. Yet all the disparate, brilliant voices in tonight’s program understood the power of love, and each one advances the story in his own way. If Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the heroines of Cosí fan tutte, sang art songs, I doubt they’d let loose with “Modest Maid,” and I doubt that their swains Ferrando and Guglielmo would be sparring with the “Tennis Duet.” But this is the age of Hamilton. Let’s allow our two modern couples to duke it out with the full psychological and social artillery of the twenty-first century. And afterwards, we can discuss who went home with whom.


Join us for Love at the Crossroads
Sun, Mar 17 at 3pm at Caramoor (Katonah, NY) or Tue, Mar 19 at 8pm at Merkin Hall (NYC)

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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