The 19th century may be over, but the art song lives on. Although perhaps less iconic than their Romantic German counterparts, contemporary U.S. composers have produced an extraordinarily rich body of work for voice and piano. As is too often the case with contemporary works, many of these songs are performed only once, at the event they were commissioned for, before falling into obscurity.
To fight against that regrettable trend, the New York Festival of Song presented an evening of reprises on Feb. 13 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, giving a second hearing to a robust sampling of songs from composers who have worked with the Festival in the past. Mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino and baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco traded off the vocal parts, and NYFOS Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett covered the eclectic piano parts with the occasional help of Danny Zelibor.
The songs on offer ran the gamut from cheeky frivolities to devastating cries of grief. On the lighter side were songs like “Lucky Number” (words: Wendy Walters, music: Derek Bermel), a plucky love song from an unproduced musical about Detroit, and “Nice Eyes” (words: Laren Stover, music: Lowell Liebermann), an excerpt from a tongue-in-cheek homage to both Appalachia and Johannes Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes. At the other extreme were two works from the 1990s written in response to the AIDS crisis: James Primosch’s “From Psalm 116” — which surrounds a plainchant-like melody with bruised fragments of decaying chords — and Ned Rorem’s “End of the Day” (words: Charles Baudelaire) and “Faith” (words: Mark Doty) — a sequence, performed without pause, that moved from radiant assurance to angular, clawing paranoia. (“Burning Bar,” with words by Elaine Sexton and music by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, was a less successful exploration of a moment in LGBTQ history, a ponderous reflection on the Stonewall Uprising.)
Just as the evening’s songs ranged in their emotional content, they ranged in their musical style as well. John Harbison’s “All for You” borrowed heavily from the language of sultry jazz ballads, and Adam Guettel’s hermetic “There Go I” was unmistakably shaped by his work in musical theatre. “Swallow, Swallow” (words: Alfred Lord Tennyson, music: Jonathan Dove) had a similar theatrical energy to Guettel’s work, but a more operatic cast, weaving a tapestry of fluttering figures to mimic the flapping of a sparrow’s wings, a texture not unlike the lovely, quietly devastating tremors of Errollyn Wallen’s evocative “North.”
Other songs inhabited more sui generis soundworlds, like “Mornings Innocent” (words: May Swenson, music: Aaron Jay Kernis) — an anodyne gem that served as a solid closing number — and “O Ihr Zärtlichen” (words: Rainer Maria Rilke, music: Peter Lieberson) — the highlight of the evening, with harmonies full of otherworldly mysteries.
The DiMenna Center acoustic heavily favors the piano, but Perregrino and Diaz-Moresco mostly held their own. Both are capable interpreters of the song repertoire, and Perregrino especially has an exquisite ear for subtle expressive gestures that would be lost in a less intimate medium. Diaz-Moresco sometimes fell prey to the temptation to over-act in his numbers, but these instincts served him well in the more pointedly dramatic songs. Barrett traversed the wide range of styles with fluid ease, and Zelibor brought an impeccable sense of ensemble to the Liebeslieder send-up.
If anything, the performers felt held back by the formality of the occasion. There is no stage in the DiMenna Center, and the lights on the audience were the same as those on the performers, making the whole evening feel less like a full-fledged vocal recital and more like a gathering in a large, exceptionally well-appointed living room. One of the great joys of being a musician is getting together on occasion with friends to slosh through some repertoire for the sheer pleasure of making music in a social setting; the moments of this concert that felt freshest and most alive were the moments that felt closest to that spirit.
I often yearn for a classical music performance practice that sees performers and audience members as equal parts of one social community. There are times when that kind of music making feels distant indeed, but on this particular night you could feel it flickering in and out of existence. Give us some snacks to nosh on and some couches to lounge on, and it would have been perfect.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.