And…We’re Back! Program Notes

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

November 15, 2021

It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?

When the pandemic hit, our lives became a surreal mixture of Rip Van Winkle and a psych lab deprivation experiment. I’m proud that NYFOS managed to keep producing concerts with a new video series, NYFOS@Home. Reaching out to colleagues all over the world, I learned how to “accompany” singers who were not actually in the room with me, while they learned how to bend their phrasing to my fanciful twists and turns from their perches in England, Texas, California, and Norway. We missed you, our beloved audience, and I hear tell you missed us. But our online concerts gained us new fans in far-flung places—a brigade in Australia, a klatch in Europe, and a troupe of folks throughout the States and South America.

I still treasure those video concerts and plan to keep NYFOS@Home alive. Still, our return to Merkin Hall tonight is what we’ve been longing for. We crave the electricity of our live audience, and we’re grateful to see you again. We may not be able see your smile under your mask, but we’ll feel it.

I admit that it was hard to get my head around  tonight’s playlist. I sensed we all needed an infusion of optimism, but it also seemed important to acknowledge the difficult journey we’ve made during the last 20 months—the trauma of Covid, the jaw-dropping political scandals, the belated acknowledgment of violence against people of color, the impending climate disaster.

Then I thought back to a comment we received after one of our video concerts, America, Come Home. I had thought it a particularly successful program, with a wide spectrum of music and a tremendous roster of singers that included both a lovely debut artist, Angel Riley, and the legendary baritone Thomas Hampson. But afterwards someone wrote in complaining that they didn’t like our thematic programming, and wished that we would stop hammering away on just one subject and offer—what?—some off-topic Fauré or Strauss. Our artfully arranged salade composée didn’t pass muster with this listener. They wanted a 40-minute smorgasbord.

I laughed off the criticism—NYFOS has specialized in thematic programs for 34 years. It’s what we’re known for, and our programming has a ton of musical variety. Still, I filed the comment away in my mind. Maybe one day we’d need to do a more discursive program than our usual, tightly wound playlists.

Tonight is that night.

I started with a group of songs that were sine qua nons. Chief among them was “We’ll Be Together Again,” which I played obsessively in the early days of the quarantine. It was a 1945 hit tune by composer/pianist Carl T. Fischer, who formed a durable musical partnership with American pop idol and lyricist Frankie Laine. Their song has a mixture of sadness and faith that gave me many a satisfying, cathartic cry.

The Israeli song “At telchi basadeh” was also at the top of the list. I fell in love with it during the winter when I was working on the NYFOS@Juilliard program Ports of Call. I was on the hunt for a song from the Middle East, and mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani sent this one my way. It served to create a special bond between me and Maggie Reneé, who loved the tune as much as me. These were still the days when all of our musical collaborations were remote, and I must have sent her nine or ten iPhone voice memos as I worked on the piano arrangement.  I was possessed.

Lyricist Leah Goldberg wrote the poem in 1940, when the whole world was in turmoil. Life was cruel and hopeless for Jews in Europe and Russia, When Barkani set her poem to music in the early 1970s he too had survived atrocities. Yet they respond with gentle optimism, promising days of forgiveness, grace, and joy. Is it any wonder Maggie and I clung to this song in the winter months of 2021?

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” a classic by Gustav Mahler and poet Friedrich Rückert, has given me support for a long, long time—particularly since the summer of 2016. Like many people, I listen to the news during breakfast. I often find myself hearing about a world I can scarcely relate to, a whirlwind of mendacity, greed, and violence that is tantamount to madness. My music and my marriage are a refuge from the insanity of the 24-hour news cycle. Rückert’s poem puts those deep, private feelings into words, and Mahler’s music affirms the power of beauty and truth in times when they seem scarce.

During the pandemic I became fascinated with several jazz pianists—particularly Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner, Red Garland,  Fred Hersch—and Brad Mehldau, a relatively recent discovery. Sometimes his music mystifies me, sometimes it sweeps me away, but he always fascinates. Mehldau wrote a song cycle for Renée Fleming called Love Sublime, and I swooned when I heard the title song which concludes the work. Its depiction of a timeless, dark love evoked the shadowy Covid era—hidden, intimate pleasures, a sense that time has stopped. Mehldau’s printed score for the cycle includes his piano solo, and it thrills me to tread in his keyboard footsteps. I feel as if I am wearing daddy’s shoes.

I also knew what our ending song would be:  How Can I Keep from Singing,” an American classic heard in a beautiful arrangement by Broadways premiere orchestrator David Krane. I always assumed that it was a traditional Quaker tune, since it has become associated with Quaker services. But the hymn is actually the handiwork of the nineteenth-century Baptist minister and hymn-composer Robert Lowery. (He didnt claim credit for the lyrics, which seem to go farther back in history.) Pete Seeger was the first to bring this song to a concert audience during the folk music boom of the 1960s. He toned down some of the overtly religious imagery of the original, and he also included a modern verse written by his friend Doris Plenn— “When tyrants tremble, sick with fear…” This was a reference to the McCarthy-era HUAC trials where Seeger had been found guilty of contempt for Congress because he refused to answer questions or take the Fifth Amendment. Though he was sentenced to a year in jail, he was saved by a legal technicality and never had to serve his time.

With those five songs in place, I polled the cast for songs that had taken on special meaning for them during the pandemic. Maggie Valdman was quick to offer me a list of 255 popular songs she had in her active repertoire, plus a smattering of German and Russian art songs. I grabbed Brahms’s classic “Meine Liebe ist grün” as a tribute to the glories of Riverside Park. My daily journeys there in the spring and summer of 2020 kept me relatively sane in those early plague days.  The lyrics to the song are by Robert Schumann’s son Felix. Brahms was Felix’s godfather during Schumann’s last, agonizing days in a sanatorium, and looked after the fragile adolescent in a time of need. As a Christmas gift to Clara Schumann, Brahms set one of her son’s poems to music, a love-gift that has continued to bless the music world for 150 years.

Paul Appleby sent me Schubert’s “Abendlied für die Entfernte,” about which he wrote: “It speaks to something about healing and recovery—looking forward with peace and acceptance, even if not with joy.” He hoped I would fall in love with it as well—and I did. The gentle play of major and minor and the perpetuo moto of the barcarolle accompaniment are like a guided meditation on survival in challenging times.

Rebecca Jo Loeb took a while to deliberate over her songs. We’ve learned how to have serious, adult debates via text message, and played a solid game of Repertoire Scrimmage for about ten days. We got to “yes” on Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree,” which I hadn’t heard in quite a while. The song comes from Joni’s first album, Song to a Seagull, which mesmerized me when I was a senior in high school. Listening to her lyrics 53 years later, I am  bowled over by their emotional truth and their sheer verbal beauty. By now I have a far greater understanding of her subject: the surprising convergence of independence and loneliness.

Do you have anything…cheerful?” I texted her.

She did. Becca Jo and I have been delving into Brazilian song for a while now, ever since she, guitarist Rupert Boyd, and I performed Jobim’s “Corcovado” at Juilliard 12 years ago. We’re getting the band together again for another Jobim song, “Chega de saudade.” The title means “I’m done with all this longing,” or in Jobim’s translation, “No more blues.” Like so many Jobim songs, it blends an irresistible rhythmic charm with a lyric that dances on the rim of pain and pleasure. When I translated the text, I thought, “Oh lord, it’s a torch song, how sad!” But the music tells the truth. Love is on the horizon.

When Amanda Lynn Bottoms staked out a claim for songs that addressed the political climate, I suggested one we’d done together a few years ago: “Lamento esclavo” by Eliseo Grenet. Written in Cuba during the mid-1930s, it is a vigorous, exultant demand for Black liberation. Slavery was abolished in Cuba about two decades after our Civil War. But the scars took a long time to heal.

Errollyn Wallen’s “my feet may take a little while”—Amanda’s suggestion—addresses this very healing process with an unusual mix of gentleness and strength. Wallen was born in Belize and trained at the Dance Theater of Harlem, before moving to England to study composition. There she has established herself as a major voice in contemporary music with  operas, songs, and chamber works. She has collaborated with jazz musicians and filmmakers as well as classical bulwarks like Wigmore Hall and The Royal Opera. An accomplished singer and pianist, she knows how to write graciously for both halves of the song team. The motto of her ensemble is, “We don’t break down any barriers in music…we don’t see any.” It’s not so far from NYFOS’s slogan: “No song is safe from us.”

Johnathan McCullough and I wrangled via email over repertoire. But when he sent me Glen Hansard’s “Song of Good Hope” I knew we’d hit pay dirt. Hansard is a celebrated Irish singer and actor, with both a Grammy Award and an Academy Award hanging on his wall. There’s nothing complicated about “Song of Good Hope,” but its simple message of perseverance shook me to the core. I later learned that Hansard wrote it for a friend who was battling cancer—that depth of feeling is what I heard when I first played it. (I also found out that this friend is doing well on his journey back to health. Which made me cry all over again.)

A dozen emails later, Johnathan once again hit the jackpot when he suggested John Musto’s “Litany,” set to a poem by Langston Hughes. The song is a cornerstone of my repertoire—it is dedicated to me and Christopher Trakas, and NYFOS has programmed it several times over the years. But its portrait of a “weary city” populated by “the sick, the depraved, the desperate, the tired” was a beautiful prayer for the ravaged New York I’d inhabited in the spring of 2020, as well as a good companion song for the energetic drive of Grenet’s “Lamento esclavo.”

Johnathan and I have performed Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing” a couple of times, and I thought its message of romantic fantasy put a rosy spin on the near-moratorium on dating during the Covid Era. Porter often writes about the potential for joy during REM sleep. In some of his songs (like “All Through the Night”) the dreamer wakes to a feeling of loneliness, but here—“oh what a lucky windfall, touching you, clutching you all the night through!—dream-dancing is the ultimate in romance.

I ran into the composer Paul Moravec when I was programming this concert and told him I was wrestling with the rep. He said, “Steve, people need HOPE! They want something optimistic!” That settled it. Becca Jo and I had been wrangling about the quartet “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” from Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies. For some reason I’d been hanging back—it serves a brilliant, ironic purpose in the original, but I wondered how it would play in November of 2021. But Becca’s got great instincts, and Moravec was right: we can all use some good cheer, especially delivered with Sondheim’s patrician wordplay. We offer it as a look into two pandemic-era households, with each couple doing their best to keep it together against all odds.

I assembled the program as a kind of potluck dinner, and was pleased that we had found songs to express so much of what we had felt during our time of seclusion. But something was still missing: the increasingly surreal quality of the lockdown, and the groggy experience of reentry after such a long period of quarantine. I was driving myself crazy looking for the right song, but I knew that if I stopped searching it would float up from my unconscious.        

It did. One morning I found myself humming a tune Peggy Lee recorded in 1975 called “Ready to Begin Again.” I didn’t remember too much about it except for the title phrase and the disjointed, Kurt Weill-ish color of the music. I knew I used to have a copy of the music—and there it was on my shelf, a thin book with a strangely bloated portrait of Peggy Lee on the cover. The volume was on the verge of falling apart, which it promptly did when I placed it on my scanner.

The song is by the lyricist/composer team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, famous for their string of Billboard hits in the 1950s including “Love Potion #9,” “Hound Dog,”  Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Stand By Me.” In the early 1970s, they began a second career writing cabaret songs, including “Is That All There Is?” Many of their quirky, post-Elvis songs remain unpublished—a fascinating collection of character pieces in a wide variety of styles.

I was lucky enough to stay healthy during the pandemic. So did almost all my friends—and the few who did get sick made full recoveries.  But I did suffer one tremendous loss. Just as New York City was beginning to shut down in late March of 2020, Michael Barrett decided to get in his car and leave town. Everything was in such confusion at that time, and lots of people were relocating just to avoid being in urban locales. Since everyone was suddenly all over the place, Michael’s departure for his second home in Moab, Utah made sense as part of a larger trend.

In the late spring it became obvious that Michael’s move was not temporary but permanent. He loved his life in Moab, where he runs a successful music festival. In September he elected to step down from NYFOS after 33 years as my artistic partner.

It was a big adjustment for us. We’ve pulled ourselves together and forged on with some of our biggest projects in decades. NYFOS is going strong, headed in wonderful new directions.

But how we miss Michael. Godspeed, dear friend.

Steven Blier

Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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