Songs of the Irish Poets

New York Festival of Song

Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Center

17th March, 2009

Saint Paddy’s day this year was celebrated with unaffected charm by New York Festival of Song’s presentation of Songs of the Irish Poets, the culmination of a week-long workshop with four young professional singers, an Uillean pipe and flute player, and the two NYFOS founders, pianists Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, accompanied by violinist Jessica Lee and cellist Karen Ouzounian. Blier handpicked each of the singers to participate in the inaugural Caramoor Vocal Rising Stars workshop, a happy collaboration between the two companies born of these tough economic times. The result was a priceless delight; this reviewer could not resist the joy in music-making that emanated from the open faces and fresh voices, and the collective artistry and lilting language of the program and its presenters.

The program opened with a traditional Uillean pipe solo from Christopher Layer, setting the scene beautifully for an evening devoted to the Emerald Isle’s haunting, foggy atmosphere. The following set of Beethoven’s Irish songs were probably the least successful of the evening. Beethoven’s strength is in his keyboard writing, which Michael Barrett brought out with great brilliance and personality, however, the text was as foggy as the Emerald Isle herself.  Given the singers’ clarity in the rest of the concert, I blame this particular English text setting.

The highlight of the program for me was the next group, Benjamin Britten’s songs based on Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. Each song was preceded by Layer’s hypnotic renditions of the original tunes on pipes and flutes, seamlessly modulated and joined to Britten’s masterful settings. The singers came into their own in this set, each personally connecting with the text, as Blier moved from gentle atmospheric pedaling to raucous chords reminiscent of tromping across the hills. Joelle Harvey’s “How sweet the answer,” had angelic sincerity, Paul Appleby’s “Avenging and Bright,” evoked an exciting full warrior sound, Liza Forrester enveloped us in the fertile green slopes in “At the Mid Hour of Night,” and David McFerrin’s lovelorn sailor rocked us on the waves of “Sail on, Sail on.” The final ensemble “O the Sight Entrancing,” was a fun romp for singers, pianist, and audience.

Throughout the concert Steven Blier gave introductions and explanations, extending his ideas to the audience as he might to his singers. His easy wit, depth of knowledge, and love of the songs and singers gave each set personal interest and complemented the deft hand with which he guided and played the performance. His obvious delight in the silly centerpiece of the performance, a scene from the forgotten Ballad Opera The Bohemian Girl by Michael William Balfe, led us to giggle and guffaw as Miss Harvey and Mr. Appleby embraced the campy melodrama, yet sang with fitting purity and sweetness.

The second half of the concert was a collection of individual songs by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Platt, Barber, Collisson, and various traditional tunes in lovely arrangements by Mr. Blier. There were many enjoyable numbers by each of the artists, notably for me, two Barber songs, “Of That So Sweet Imprisonment” and “Nuvoletta”  with text by James Joyce, sung by Ms. Forrester and Ms. Harvey respectively. The closing number, Blier’s arrangement of “The Palatine’s Daughter”, was humorously staged and sung by Ms. Forrester and Mr. McFerrin, and supported by the full ensemble, with Layer on the whistle, and Ms. Harvey and Mr. Appleby providing sweet backup vocals. They closed with one of Thomas Moore’s charming original quartet settings as an encore, and in Blier’s words, “the sweet power of song never had it so good.”

Charm was the word of the day when it came to the youthful singers. Soprano Joelle Harvey spun one silvery phrase after another all evening, but never settled for merely pretty singing. Her flawless technique hinted at a thrilling top, with multitudes of potential colors in her summery voice, even more of which I am sure she will explore in her burgeoning career. Liza Forrester, a Mezzo resembling a Dior New Look model, used her gracious presence to draw us breathlessly into each atmospheric scene. Her sweet instrument was ever at the command of the text, which she caressed with delicate distinction and generosity.

David McFerrin’s warm baritone was at its best in Russell Platt’s songs to poems by Paul Muldoon, both guests at the Caramoor workshop. McFerrin seemed more naturally and specifically connected to these more modern texts and brought new honest colors to these songs that I wished he had employed only a little more in the rest. Tenor Paul Appleby, recent winner of the Metropolitan Opera Competition, was given most of the rogueish, brogue-ish, fun Irish folk songs, to which he lent his bright, pleasing tenor with inherited Irish temperament to spare (his rendition “Eileen Óg” was just plain terrific). The sophisticated nuance he brought to each of those crowd-pleasing numbers, as well as Berlioz’s “Adieu, Bessy,” made me wish to hear his depth and artistry in a few more serious songs.

Each of the performers projected such an honest joy in performing and love of the material, it could not help but captivate the audience. I left with an Irish swagger in my step and lilt to my voice, lessening the economic downturn’s weight on my shoulders, and lifting my spirits to the rolling green hills, even just for an evening of song.


Whitney Scott