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Bright Sheng: Three Chinese Love Songs

I’m honored to be sharing songs with you this week, the week of the “Hyphenated Americans” concert at Merkin Hall! I have loved exploring the music of two of the composers featured on Wednesday’s program: Bright Sheng and Daniel Sabzghabaei. This is a chance to hear many different styles of music influenced from the hybrid experiences of the composers. I’m particularly struck by how the language affects the style and even my vocal approach to this music. Chinese and Farsi couldn’t be further from typical “American English” or from each other, and I get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sing in both of these languages back-to-back.  On the program you will hear “Three Chinese Love Songs” by Bright Sheng, which are arrangements of folk melodies for soprano, piano, and viola. It has been very satisfying to hear Cindy Wu work her magic on a very difficult viola part with lots of harmonics! When I asked her for something to listen to in order to get a better sense of how the language is sung and what the style of Chinese folk song is, she sent me this video, a setting of the first song in the set. Listen to the brightness of the language and the incredibly expressive sliding in the vocal line. I probably don’t have to tell you that this version is produced quite differently than what you’ll hear this Wednesday, but it’s a lot of fun—enjoy!

William Bolcom: Paula’s Aria

It’s been a very busy winter at NYFOS. Tchaikovsky, Paul Bowles (A Picnic Cantata), Gabe Kahane, Bill Bolcom, and the Juilliard Protest program. Steve Blier jetted off to UCLA to work with the students and Peter Kazaris. Opera America asked us to help with their Bill Bolcom conversation just a few days ago. I grabbed it, knowing it would be great to see Bill and Joan Morris again, and that it would be a really good chance for our singers to meet the composer and get some coaching from him.

Certainly one of our most successful living opera composers, Bolcom has an amazing way of writing arias that sound really American, and still sound like Grand Opera. I hear jazz chords, the blues, and american musical gestures which I don’t have a name for. And it is all somehow spun into soaring operatic melody.

Here are “Paula’s Aria” from the just premiered Dinner at Eight (libretto by Mark Campbell) sung by Amy Owens, followed by “But You Do Not Know This Man” (Catherine’s Aria) from A View From The Bridge (libretto by Arthur Miller and Arnold Weinstein) sung by Mikaela Bennett. Both arias are sung by young women who believe they have the key to helping that flawed man in their lives. Through the power and determination of their love, they will get the failing object of their affection to wake up, correct their ways, and live happily ever after. Of course, neither girl in their heart of hearts thinks it will work. Bill’s music tells you that, as do these two beautiful performances.  Leann Osterkamp is with me at the piano.

Richard Strauss: Ständchen

It’s a day for favorites: My favorite composer, Richard Strauss, my favorite song, “Ständchen”, and my favorite singer, Kathleen Battle. As soon as I declare a favorite, my mind immediately thinks of a dozen other “favorites,” but I don’t intend to be dishonest! You music lovers know what I mean. There are always many favorites.

But this song…. my goodness, this song makes me dizzy in the best way. I love the liveliness of the piano, shimmering like moonlight on leaves or a love-stricken heart, flowing radiantly underneath a buoyant and lyrical vocal line. Kathleen Battle is, in my mind, the ultimate interpreter. Her light and youthful sound, breathtakingly beautiful as it soars through Strauss’s expert writing, captures the innocence and excitement of this secret meeting of lovers. Yes, I am using many superlatives, because this piece deserves it.

Please give way to rapture and let the music carry all your worries away… after all, that is what we need most from music sometimes.

Barbra Streisand sings “A Piece of Sky”

As I was listening to songs to share, today I kept coming back to Barbra Streisand. Love her or hate her, there is something timelessly vulnerable and honest about her sound. Authenticity is what a listener craves, and Barbra always delivers.

This song comes from the film Yentl, which tells the story of a Jewish girl from Poland who defies all expectations to follow her dreams. Yentl assumes the name and appearance of a man in order to pursue her education, eventually leaving Europe to pursue a life of greater freedom in the United States.

Not only does this song remind me of the promise and freedom of this great country I call my home, but it also inspires me to reach out of my comfort zone and set my sights both high and wide. One particular passage of lyrics stands out:

The more I live, the more I learn
The more I learn, the more I realize
The less I know

Each step I take 
Each page I turn 
Each mile I travel only means
The more I have to go

What’s wrong with wanting more?
If you can fly, then soar!
With all there is, why settle for
Just a piece of sky?

Please enjoy “A Piece of Sky” from Yentl, sung by Barbra at her best.

Joseph Canteloube: Baïlèro

For years, I have adored the Chants d’Auvergne, folk songs from the Auvergne region of France in the local language, Occitan. The collector and arranger of these landscape-inspired songs was Auvergne native Joseph Canteloube, who took more than thirty years (1924-1955) to complete his compilation.

“Baïlèro” is one of the most famous of these songs, with lush orchestration and a pastoral theme. After teasing the shepherd and calling out advice for leading the flock to better pasture, the singer raises her final strains: “Shepherd, how will I manage? Over there is the little stream. Call Baïlèro! Wait for me, I am coming! Baïlèro!” 

Let your ears delight in the incomparable Kiri Te Kanawa and the Royal Philharmonic:

Farhad Mehrad: Booye Eydi

Today I bring you music from one of the most influential Iranian artists of all time, Farhad Mehrad. After rising to popularity in the years before and during the Iranian Revolution in the 70’s, he was banned from singing for several years. He began producing music again in 1993, releasing his album Barf (Snow) in the United States in 1999. A man of many cultural interests, Farhad recorded songs in multiple languages including Persian, English, French, Russian, German, Spanish, and Armenian. His final album of multi-national songs, Amin (Amen), was not completed before his death in 2002.

This song, “Booye Eydi” or “Smell of the New Year,” was introduced to me by Sahar Nouri, a wonderful pianist and dear friend. Of it, she writes:

“The singer recounts all the lovely memories of spending new year in Iran: the smell of the flowers, the excitement of people buying new clothes, the smell of gift wrap papers, the sound of grandma’s prayers, etc. Then he repeats (chorus): With these memories I am able to get through the winter. With these thoughts I can comfort my tired mind and body.”

I hope you enjoy this soulful and nostalgic treasure!

Leonard Bernstein: Silhouette

I am grateful and excited to contribute to this week’s Song of the Day, which gives us something beautiful to ponder about in the midst of chaos. Today, I have chosen a song by the great Leonard Bernstein: “Silhouette,” or “Galilee.”

Bernstein wrote this song as a birthday gift for Jewish-American mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel in 1951. The song incorporates an old Lebanese folksong with Arabic text paraphrased by the line “The boys in the dark olive groves assemble, Hand in hand in a dancing ring.”

Today I read of two Syrian refugee families on their way to the U.S. who were forced to return to Beruit, Lebanon mid-journey. This song is dedicated to them.

Text and music by Leonard Bernstein

A last little bird on a palm feather riding,
Black and clean in the afterglow.
A lone little girl in the olive grove hiding,
Crooning soft as the sun sinks low: oo, oo,
Hu! ‘rrfah!

An old little jeep through the mountains crawling,
Tough and tiny against the sun,
A young Arab shepherd upon his knees falling,
Allah, Allah, the day is done, ee,ee, ee,
Hee! ‘rrfah!

The boys in the dark olive groves assemble,
Hand in hand in a dancing ring,
Their eyes to the sun, and their lips atremble,
Drunk with love and the chant they sing:
Walad ela ‘Una, Norkod taht el zetuna!
Ah! Ha! ‘rrfah

Enjoy this recording by Roberta Alexander and Tan Crone.

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