Baritone and Five Boroughs Music Festival co-founder Jesse Blumberg discusses his varied career and dodges our final question. Jesse will return to NYFOS’s Mainstage in Hyphenated-Americans on February 20, 2019 at Merkin Hall.
You co-founded the growing arts organization Five Boroughs Music Festival in 2007 along with mezzo-soprano Donna Breitzer. What inspired you to create this organization?
Sheer Lunacy?? Kidding! (mostly…) I had been living in NYC for about four years at the time, and was gradually getting things going, career-wise, through a combination of ensemble work, young artist programs, and the occasional opera production. But I still felt most myself in recital and chamber music, and really enjoyed building a program from scratch, finding a suitable venue, and bringing performers together. I didn’t feel so much like a producer, or even realize what that meant, but I suppose I had a craving to make more concerts happen. I was approached by a friend about starting a potential series in the Bronx, which didn’t come to fruition, but which got me thinking about hosting events outside of Manhattan. I saw all the amazing things already happening in Brooklyn, and once I found myself considering a three borough series, it was pretty easy to make the jump to 5IVE. Or was it? I don’t know… I remember a certain dread when I realized that the 5-borough concept was probably the best idea I’d have, and that it meant I had to do it! Luckily, within a couple months, I managed to talk Donna, who was about to move to NYC, into climbing on board and starting the adventure together. Without her, there’s no way we’d ever have reached a 5th, 10th, or 12th Season.
How have you balanced your role as artistic director with your singing career?
It’s never been easy, of course. We’re both so busy in our non-5BMF lives that a lot of the work happens on the go, and between everything else. I find myself stealing moments on rehearsal or recording breaks to attend to 5BMF to-do lists, but that can sometimes be refreshing, too. It’s always been really helpful for me to see the business from another angle; it exercises my brain in a different way. I haven’t performed on an official 5BMF concert in about 6 years, which certainly helps the stress levels of any given event. One favorite juggling moment was a few years back, when one Friday in May we managed to present an early evening concert in Jamaica, Queens, on the same night that I was covering at the Phil and Donna was singing at the Met. Not ideal, but we made it work!
5BMF programs a wide variety of chamber music programs; are there any particular concerts, pieces, or moments that have really stuck with you?
Tough question! It’s been almost 60 different programs to date, I think, which is sort of mind-boggling to stop and consider. I love the juxtaposition of early music on period instruments one month, and then ink-still-wet offerings the next. We really enjoy asking a dynamic ensemble to give us a program that a more conventional presenter might shy away from, but we have also enjoyed curating our own programs from time to time. Helping bring new music to the stage has always been special to us, and I think I’m especially proud of our two volumes of Five Borough Songbooks, for which we commissioned 40 composers in total, resulting in 40 new songs about NYC.
You will be performing in NYFOS’s Hyphenated-Americans, on February 20, which focuses on the music of living immigrant or first-generation American composers. As you prepare the music, have any particular themes struck you? What do you think this concert will convey about what it means to be American today?
I knew this would be an important program from the moment I heard about it. As is always the case with NYFOS, the themes and titles make us think about the music in a larger context, and that context in turn affects our experience in hearing the music. There will be four languages sung in this concert, none of which are English, and this feels like a very American thing to celebrate. Languages have always been a huge part of my relationship with song, and I jumped at the chance to learn a piece in Farsi, which was totally new to me, and to take on a giant piece in Spanish, which was the first second language I ever studied. Even if I haven’t traveled to some of these places where these texts come from, learning how to pronounce a new language, and acquainting myself with some of its words and poetry, gives me just the slightest window into their culture, and I wish more native-born Americans could share this experience. While these composers may not all have been born on American soil, this is their country all the same, and fortunately, their wonderful music belongs to all of us.
Since you are our February Artist of the Month and a newlywed (Congrats!), do you have any special Valentine’s Day plans or traditions? Taking a broader view, how do you prioritize your personal relationships when you are frequently on the road?
Thank you! This Valentine’s Day Johanna will be performing in Miami, and I believe I have a long, grueling date with the music of Roberto Sierra. But that’s pretty typical for us, since we both travel a ton. Luckily we do get to work and perform together from time to time, and we did recently have an amazing honeymoon in South America. Incidentally, speaking Spanish for two weeks was pretty helpful preparation for all the text in 33 Sueños!
You approached Steven Blier with the idea for Manning the Canon, and 5BMF produced its first performances. NYFOS revived it the following two seasons and it will return this June in a co-presentation with 5BMF and the LGBT Center for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. What do you think make has made this program so successful?
I believe Steve approached me! He came to one of our early concerts and got very excited about what we were doing. We discussed a few different collaborative ideas, and Manning the Canon was the idea that emerged. We were so proud to feature Steve in a program that felt at once so personal to him and so universal to so many. It’s also simply full of great music and great performances, and we’re all really excited to be remounting it on June 25th, this time coupled with a special NYFOS Next program curated by Laura Kaminsky on June 11th. Do YOU have your tickets yet??? (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)
Are there any upcoming performances you are particularly excited about (other than Hyphenated-Americans, of course)?
There’s lots of recital music in my brain these days, which is always a good problem to have. I’m doing an all Durey and Ravel program with Jocelyn Dueck next month, and soon after, Die schöne Müllerin with guitarist Simon Martyn-Ellis. Lots of great Baroque music going on, too.
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
Gregory Spears’ and Greg Pierce’s beautiful opera Fellow Travelers. And some amazing live recording sessions of Charpentier and Lalande by incredible colleagues here in Bremen with Boston Early Music Festival.
When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?
Writing 5BMF Emails?? Kidding! (mostly…) Running (in nice weather), ping-pong, whisk(e)y tasting, and traveling. Preferably all at once.
What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)
Too hard. No fair. This interview is over. Ok, I just wanted to say “this interview is over” for once in my life. 😉 There are too many to love. And there are too many that I don’t know. You know that viral video with the young woman who’s incredibly upset because she can’t hug every cat in the world? Well, I’m allergic to most cats, but I can sort of relate to that feeling, re: songs. There’s always a new favorite to have, even if you can’t hug them all. Unless you’re NYFOS, which comes pretty close.
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