No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
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The idea for this program came to me a few years ago over breakfast one morning. The gentle, rational voices of NPR’s morning announcers couldn’t disguise the sheer cruelty and greed detailed in the day’s news. My antipathy to the word “tweet” was ballooning and my blood pressure spiking. I needed a quick mental vacation, a fantasy trip to the seashore. And I soon realized I was not alone—everyone I knew needed a break, a reminder of the things that make life worth living. Bingo! A perfect program idea: we’d evoke the thrill of romance, the fascination of dreams. The deep pleasure of song could transport us to the beauty of summertime at the shore.

As the day wore on, I realized that there are other pleasures equally important, if less socially acceptable: guilty compulsions, louche love affairs we can’t tell anyone about, gratifications that fall outside the norm. However taboo, these pleasure have proved to be catnip to composers. They add a welcome touch of vinegar and salt to the sweetness and light. The smorgasbord was complete. 

Today’s repertoire is a typical NYFOS mash-up of art song, operetta, musical theater, and folk music. Some of the composers are well-known masters who need only a bit of annotation to put them in context. Franz Lehár, who wrote the Merry Widow, gives us a sexy tango from his last operetta, Giuditta; Leonard Bernstein offers a rarity, a recently discovered torch song from the 1940s called “It’s Got to Be Bad to Be Good”; the iconic American satirist Tom Lehrer brings us the cheerful “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”; Camille Saint-Saëns (Samson and Delilah, The Carnival of the Animals) stops time with one of his most beautiful art songs, “Aimons-nous”; and Johannes Brahms makes an all-too-rare NYFOS appearance with a breathtaking lullaby from Die schöne Magelone. While Brahms never wrote an opera, this massive narrative cycle, comprised of 15 aria-length songs plus narration, is as close as he ever came to a theatrical work. 

We also hear from two icons of the late-Romantic era. The one-hit wonder Ruggiero Leoncavallo (of I Pagliacci fame) serves up a bracing jig en français whose tune is a guaranteed earworm, the enchanting “Sérénade napolitaine.” And there is a masterwork by Sergei Rachmaninoff: “Dream,” a hymn to the movie screen we visit every night in our sleep. I think it his most beautiful work for voice and piano (a very high bar), and it was among the last songs he ever wrote. After he emigrated to America in 1917, his only new vocal work was a set of three Russian folk song arrangements for chorus in 1927. 

The other composers might be somewhat less well known, so I offer a footnote or two. Catalan music is one of my passions, and we have art songs by two of Catalonia’s leading musicians, Eduardo Toldrà and Xavier Montsalvatge. Given Catalonia’s proximity to southern France, it was natural for Barcelona’s musicians to temper Spanish passion with the gentle sensuality of French Impressionism. The result was a uniquely atmospheric musical language. Montsalvatge was one of Catalonia’s most adventurous artists, boldly drawing on lyrical and avant-garde elements from both sides of the Atlantic over the span of a 65-year career. I think of him as the Picasso of Spanish music, constantly experimenting and absorbing new ideas. Eduardo Toldrà is a more typical Catalan voice: elegant, yielding, and wistful. While more conservative than Montsalvatge, he is capable of casting a musical spell which you’ll hear in his magical songs “Maig” and “Canço de grumet.” Even at his tenderest (as in “Canço amorosa”), Montsalvatge shows off his swarthy masculinity, while Toldrá (even at his most aggressive) always affirms the patrician power of sweetness.

Francesco Paolo Tosti was the king of the salon song back when live after-dinner entertainment was de rigueur in the best houses. He came from a humble background, but from a young age he developed a knack for finding patrons of wealth and influence. His catchy tunes ultimately ingratiated him to Queen Victoria, and in 1880 he was hired as the resident singing master to the Royal Family. He rapidly became a European superstar. “Marechiare,” a jaunty hymn to a seaside neighborhood in Naples, celebrates the town where Tosti attended conservatory.

Leading off the section called “The Down-Low” is a song by the English composer Jonathan Dove (b. 1959). His operas are making their way into the American repertory, particularly his airport dramedy Flight. Dove’s music embraces a broad spectrum of styles. He’s got a wicked sense of humor and the timing of a Broadway pro, as evidenced by his comic opera The Enchanted Pig. But his palette also includes minimalism and romanticism, rhythmic drive and stark stasis. For today’s concert we’re presenting the first of his Five Am’rous Sighs, in which a piano ostinato provides a hypnotic background for a secret confession of lesbian attraction.

Dove’s sweetly ecstatic song gives way to Bernstein’s down-and-dirty blues in praise of kinky sex, a song he tossed off in the early 1940s which has only recently seen the light of day. And since we’re talking about kinks, how about a song by…The Kinks? This iconic rock group flourished in the mid-‘60s, peaked in the early ‘70s, and managed to remained active well into the ‘90s. Few rock ’n roll songs are suitable to the recital format—they’re usually guitar-oriented, noisy, and sweatily in-your-face. When baritone Johnathan McCullough suggested this song for an earlier version of this program, I admit I was skeptical. But “Lola” turned out to have a well-written lyric that told a good story, and chord progressions that fell graciously under my hands. Blessings on McCullough for introducing me to a song everyone but me already knew—although few seemed to have understood what it was actually about. 

It’s just a hop, skip, and jump from bedroom kinks to behavioral aberrations of an obsessive nature. We’ve paired Tom Lehrer’s evergreen classic “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” with two more American songs in praise of compulsion. “Humphrey Bogart,” the first of them, is by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, best known for the rock ‘n roll hits they wrote in the 1950s—“Love Potion #9,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” and a host of others. In the mid-1970s the songwriting duo began to write arty cabaret-style material, often with a political message. Peggy Lee’s 1975 album Mirrors was devoted entirely to these Kurt Weill-ish songs, and soon after that William Bolcom and his wife Joan Morris released their own piano-and-voice LP with more Leiber and Stoller gems. That is where I first heard “Humphrey Bogart,” which we include as a tribute to a modern vice: binge-watching. 

The NYFOS audience may remember Gabriel Kahane’s Craiglistlieder from our 2010 program The Newest Deal. Kahane’s 2007 song cycle became his calling card—indeed, I first met him when a mutual friend, Charlotte Dobbs, brought Gabe over to my place where he sat down at my piano and performed the entire 20-minute work for me. I was bowled over by his pianistic skills, his vocal acrobatics, and his sheer chuztpah. It’s no surprise that Craigslistlieder, whose lyrics are lifted from personal ads on the Internet, has become an instant classic since its premiere. It functions on so many levels simultaneously: the songs are LOL funny but also strangely touching, completely modern in their texts while hewing closely to the values of great songwriters of the past. In the cycle’s finale, “Opera Scene,” Gabe honors—and parodies—Bernstein, Stravinsky, Wolf, Handel, and Rossini, transforming them into a unique brew of ironic beauty and serious comedy. 

I’ve reserved the deepest pleasures for last: the warmth of love, the life-giving energy of faith, and the power of song to lead us out of darkness. Saint-Saëns’ pristine “Aimons-nous et dormons” is a prelude to a song by Michael John LaChiusa, “Heaven,” originally written for an unproduced musical by this prolific composer/lyricist. LaChiusa has written a slew of off-Broadway shows, including “First Lady Suite,” “Hello Again,” and “Queen of the Mist,” as well as two that played on the Great White Way, “Marie Christine” and “Wild Party.” His work might be a bit too arty for the tourist crowd, but he is prized by some of our greatest exponents of musical theater including Audra McDonald and Mary Testa. It was the latter who brought me today’s song. Programming a recent gala in celebration of NYFOS’ 30th anniversary, I asked Mary to sing a modern song that she thought would still be sung in 30 years. “Heaven” was her suggestion, and I fell for it instantly. I shall play my part in keeping it alive for the next three decades.

The show ends with an American classic, as arranged by Broadway’s premiere orchestrator David Krane. I had always assumed that “How Can I Keep from Singing” was a traditional Quaker tune, since it appears in hymnals and has become associated with Quaker services. But the melody is actually the handiwork of the nineteenth-century Baptist minister and hymn-composer Robert Lowry. (He didn’t claim credit for the lyrics, which seem to go farther back in history.) Pete Seeger was the first to bring this song to a mass audience during the folk music boom of the 1960s. He toned down some of the overtly religious imagery of the original, and he also included a modern verse written by his friend Doris Plenn—“When tyrants tremble, sick with fear…”  This was a reference to the recent McCarthy trials where Seeger had been found guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail. Saved by a legal technicality, he never had to serve his time.

I am not naïve enough to think that song alone can protect us from tyrants, madmen, or tweeting narcissists. But it can coalesce us into meaningful action. It can give us comfort. It can provide a respite of beauty, a reminder of our shared humanity, and support for our appetites. The vibration of song is a ripple that can become a wave. May we all meet again in sweeter times, propelled and buoyed up by music!

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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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