REVIEW: NYFOS Celebrates Gay Men in Song
June 26, 2019
By Brian Taylor
New York Festival of Song returned to the LGBT Community Center, as part of the Five Boroughs Music Festival, to celebrate gay men in song — “Manning the Canon: Gay Life in Song.” NYFOS’s brilliant artistic director and pianist Steven Blier has curated a delightful soiree celebrating his personal findings of the gay soul in vocal music. On the menu was a bountiful variety of delicious songs — from nineteenth century art songs to late-twentieth century pop gems — served up by a quartet of strapping male vocalists in top form.
The concert, a veritable hit in 2009, presently revived for the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, was born out of the notion to do a program of gay composers. In fact, this was a “straight-friendly” occasion, and the theme expanded to include examples by composers not thought of as gay, but in which Mr. Blier found a gay angle. The collection of tunes was an assortment of types, something for everyone, mixing it up at a buzzing gay happy hour.
Mr. Blier held court at the piano and offered invaluable commentary — insights into music history and priceless anecdotes — as well as sensitive and supportive accompaniment, nimble in classical repertoire and swinging in jazz styles.
The opening chapter, “Men on Men, Man to Man,” included a sensuous “Is It Dirty?” by Christopher Berg (lyrical music to text by Frank O’Hara) featuring the silky baritone Efraín Solís. Also special was a piece from an off-Broadway show — with a libretto by Mark Campbell, also responsible for New York City Opera’s recent Stonewall — called Songs from an Unmade Bed, with music by Joseph Thalken called “An Admission,” sung exquisitely by tenor Scott Murphree. Murphree was then joined by fellow tenor Daniel McGrew, Solís and bass Matt Boehler for some Schubert — a rousing quartet called “Der Gondelfaher” — beginning a section of art songs dubbed “Our Gay Heritage in Art Song: Fulfillment.” Treasures by Poulenc, Tchaikovsky, and Griffes followed, all flawlessly rendered.
The following chapter, “Drag Acts,” found Boehler, with his hefty bass and crisp diction, delivering John Wallowitch’s ode to Bruce Vilanch, “Bruce.” An excerpt from William Bolcom’s little-known opera Casino Paradise concluded the first half of the evening.
The program continued with another foray into serious fare, “Our Gay Heritage in Art Song: Mixed Signals,” with a dexterous reading of Saint-Saëns’s “Si vous n’aves rien à me dire” by Mr. Murphree, and a virtuosic “Polo” of de Falla sung by Mr. Solís. But Britten’s rarely performed “Night covers up the rigid land,” to a poem by W. H. Auden, was an emotional high point, sung exquisitely by the satiny tenor Daniel McGrew.
The final chapter, “150 Years of Gay Brotherhood,” takes unexpected turns. A same-sex iteration of the “Tennis Duet” from the ‘90’s musical City of Angels was enjoyable. But the evening’s high point was Bernstein’s setting of Whitman, “To what you said,” from his 1977 Songfest, featuring the whole company. As a festive finale, Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” was dispersed among the four vocalists, including, of course the ribald (apocryphally attributed to Irving Berlin) lyrics:
You’re the top!
You’re Miss Pinkham’s tonic.
You’re the top!
You’re a high colonic.
You’re the burning heat of a bridal suite in use.
You’re the breasts of Venus
You’re King Kong’s penis,
You’re an arch
In the Rome collection.
You’re the starch
In a groom’s erection.
I’m a eunuch who
Has just been through an op,
But if, Baby, I’m the bottom
You’re the top.