The Voluptuous Muse

New York Festival of Song

Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Center

16th February, 2010

NYFOS (New York Festival of Song) presented their latest concert at Merkin Hall on February 16th: a program of late Romantic (and romantic) songs entitled “The Voluptuous Muse.” The evening traced, according to Steven Blier’s copious program notes, the “aftershocks” of Wagner’s music, in particular those composers working in the wake of his ground-shaking, erotic opera Tristan und Isolde.

Mr. Blier is a brilliant, self-effacing, pun-cracking omnipresence on stage; like the Momofuku group, he is a beloved and distinctly local institution that makes New Yorkers wonder exactly how residents of other cities get along without their own. Often, as on Tuesday night, Mr. Blier supplies a running commentary to the concert while his NYFOS co-founder, Michael Barrett, quietly plays the straight man (Blier-esque wordplay intended). So it was in the loquacious company of Mr. Blier that we descended into Venus’ underworld, where passion played out again and again, pressed through the pens of twelve turn-of-the-century composers (thirteen, if you count the encore).

As is the NYFOS tradition, there were a few well-known chestnuts nestled within what was essentially a well-researched array of obscure song repertoire. The evening had of German, Russian and Polish songs; notably, there were no examples of Wagner’s influence on French music. Titles for groupings of the songs, made necessary by a lack of natural “sets,” did sometimes seem like half-hearted ways of saying the same thing multiple times--“Lovers and Dreams,” “Ardor” and “Devotion and Infatuation,” for example—and were indicative of the slightly meandering musical journey that the evening took on.

The concert’s three singers, soprano Dina Kunetsova, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay and tenor Joseph Kaiser, are all very talented emerging artists. Their contributions varied in vocal quality, foreign-language diction and musical preparation, but the overall standard was very high. Both Mr. Blier and Mr. Barrett were exceptional, sensitive musical partners to the singers.

Kaiser is a natural, charismatic performer with a robust tenor voice. His singing, still bearing some of the dusky weight of his former baritone training, was exciting and bold but also plenty tender when called for. Kunetsova, whose Russian diction was far above her peers’ for obvious reasons, was always secure and often sang beautifully; her performance of Rachmaninov’s “Dreams” was a highlight of the concert.

Kate Lindsay gave a perplexing performance. She has a pure, ravishing mezzo voice and is clearly capable of great depths of communication in performance. Throughout the evening, though, she inflected almost every piece with extended sections of straight tone, resulting in, among other things, some bad tuning. Lindsay’s vocal mastery was plenty in evidence so I cannot doubt that it was indeed her intention to sing with straight tone. I just cannot imagine how she and her coaches (Mr. Blier? Mr. Barrett?) came to the conclusion that such was a good choice for the late Romantic repertoire. The duets she sang with Mr. Kaiser were just plain odd – he singing with vibrato, she without. Still, she and Mr. Blier gave the most thrilling and the only truly erotic performance of the evening: Wolf’s “Ganymed,” which ended the first half of the program.

It’s not often one gets to hear the phrase “Allah Akbar!” sung in a Polish art song expressing homosexual love, but such was the case in Szymanowski’s Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, of which Ms. Kunetsova and Mr. Blier performed three. In these songs, the muezzin appropriates his religious call to worship and uses it as an entreaty to his lover.

Such is the weird, wonderful world of NYFOS, where, it seems, cultural walls are no match for an art song.

 

Bottom Line: Steven Blier steals the show, again.

 

John Costello