REVIEW: NYFOS Celebrates Melting Pot of Living Composers in "Hyphenated-Americans"
Composers, clockwise from top left: Clarice Assad, Bright Sheng, Daniel Sabzghabaei, Roberto Sierra
FEBRUARY 21, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
We should constantly be on the lookout for unfamiliar music to explore. I frequently remind myself to seek new musical stimulus, rather than just lean repeatedly on music I have known for decades. Sometimes, of course, much as the adventurous eater will occasionally sample an exotic food that doesn't appeal, with unknown music, the experience of being forced to delve into that something new can take on an air of assignment, of work.
The New York Festival of Song, in a program centering on the theme of America's cultural melting pot (in festive and artistic opposition to the xenophobia of the current administration), presented an entire evening of recently composed music by living American composers, "Hyphenated-Americans," who bring their disparate world heritage to the American musical voice.
The formidable program had moments of spellbinding beauty; it also had moments that felt like work. But, it's valuable work, and no one does it better than NYFOS, who assembles a second-to-none roster of artists, and the rapt audience in Merkin Concert Hall on Wednesday evening was enthusiastic in their support for these "hyphenated," but undeniably American creators. The program's platter of highs and lows had moments of delicious surprises and surprising deliciousness.
Songs of Brazilian composer Clarice Assad began the evening. Alexandra Urquiola, with NYFOS artistic director Steven Blier at the piano, brought earthiness and sensuality to these luscious art songs, first Prece (Prayer), with text by Assad, and then a hefty song cycle to text by Daniel Basilio called Elementos (Elements). Originally composed for a chamber ensemble, the piano part is intricate and romantic, and Blier played it with rhythmic suppleness and expressive shadings. Urquiola's warm, ingratiating mezzo-soprano brought the vivid texts to life, with clear diction and soaring phrasing. Assad is a composer to keep an eye out for, with a relatable, jazz-inflected palette, but an original voice, and a knack for keeping the listener's attention while tugging on heartstrings.
Assad was the only composer on the evening's program not in attendance, however. Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng was invited on stage for a fun name-dropping chat with NYFOS co-founder and pianist Michael Barrett to introduce the work, his Three Chinese Love Songs from 1988, commissioned for Leonard Bernstein's 77th birthday celebration at Tanglewood. The work was sung here by superb soprano Amy Owens, with Tien-Hsin (Cindy) Wu on the viola, and Mr. Barrett at the piano. I wondered if Ms. Owens has studied Chinese classical music or opera -- her expressive sculpting of the rising and falling Chinese folk melodies was convincing and natural. Ms. Wu's viola glistened with soaring bowing and crisp articulations. Mr. Barrett handled the quirky, dissonant piano part with aplomb. He was occasionally called upon to strum the strings inside the piano, this and other effects adding up to a particularly evocative and multi-textured work.
The following piece, by a young American composer named Daniel Sabzghabaei who has been reconnecting with his Persian heritage, At the Door, from 2017, is a setting of a love scene from the Persian poet Rumi, a rumination on the unattainability of oneness with one's beloved. The gimmick here is that the duetting soprano and baritone, Ms. Owens and the excellent Jesse Blumberg, sing the poetic dialogue to each other from opposite sides of the piano lid, which is perched at its most vertical position, like a wall between them. Sabzghabaei's compositional voice was the freshest we heard this evening, full of luscious sonorities and a novel mixture of harmonic colors, apparently incorporating sounds from Persian music, the vocal lines were athletic and gut-wrenching, and given poignancy and tireless drama by the singers. At the piano, the incomparable Leann Osterkamp played the zesty piano part with a palette of orchestral timbres and varying planes of atmosphere. There was melancholy, regret, and questions without answers in Sabzghabaei’s score. Especially impressive we’re Mr. Blumberg’s flips into his falsetto, to match his partner in her own treble range. The piece is full of wild gestures of abandon, requiring both the vocalists and the pianist to reach outside their comfort zone, and spill their souls. It was beautiful. And then, Mr. Barrett, who had been turning pages for Ms. Osterkamp subtly arose and abruptly slammed the piano lid shut, forcing the duetting "lovers" to face each other.
The second half of the program was dedicated to, as Mr. Barrett accurately described it in his introduction, a "massive piece." Hats off to Mr. Blumberg and Ms. Osterkamp for learning the ambitiously overstuffed 33 Sueños (33 Dreams) by Puerto-Rican composer Roberto Sierra. They gave it an illustrious American premiere tonight. But the text, a collection of poetry by a pianist friend of the composer named Juan Carlos Garvayo, is obscure. There are mentions of themes hither and yon -- Captain Nemo, Islamic esoterica, zodiac references, the Cliffs of Dover, the Fibonacci sequence, Ancient Greece. Thank goodness the translation sheet was annotated with footnotes. Fine translation work by Dorothy Potter Snyder enhanced the audience’s understanding of the text.
Yet, if there was a unifying theme holding these 33 songs together, it was lost on me. Consequently, the sheer length of the song cycle seemed unjustified -- after a dozen or so of these gloomy, wandering rhapsodies, I felt I was trapped in a dream state from which I yearned to wake up and escape.
Mr. Blumberg's pure, rounded baritone, by turns seductive and declamatory, was indefatigable in the work's onslaught of material -- some songs only a few seconds long, true, but others going on for a few minutes. Ms. Osterkamp dispatched the virtuosic piano part with deceptive ease and riveting accuracy -- fire and fury one moment, wisps of clouds the next. It was an astonishing performance.