NYFOS logo

Chris DeBlasio: Walt Whitman in 1989

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

Upcoming Birthday Boy Walt Whitman simply looms too large to appear only one day this week.  But for our final post, we’ve selected not a Whitman text, but a Whitman tribute.  “Walt Whitman in 1989”, a breathtaking poem by Perry Brass, imagines Whitman, who had visited and volunteered in hospitals during the Civil War, doing the same at the height of AIDS Crisis.  Chris DeBlasio, a young and very promising composer just recently diagnosed, included this poem and 4 others by Brass in his song cycle All the Way Through Evening, before dying at the age of 34.  “Walt Whitman in 1989” went on to be included in the original AIDS Quilt Songbook.  Perry Brass still lives and works in New York, and is a frequent and wonderful supporter at concerts; he graciously accepts applause and accolades when this song, and others featuring his poetry, are performed.

Here is a recent performance of “Walt Whitman in 1989” by Christopher Dylan Herbert, a 5BMF favorite, and Chris Reynolds.  If you watch via YouTube you can experience their beautiful work on the full cycle.   

If you come to Manning the Canon on June 25th, you’ll hear this song live, sung by Efraín Solís, near the end of the evening.

That’s all from us – it’s been a pleasure to share this week of songs with you.  Big thanks from 5BMF to NYFOS; we can’t wait for next month!

Paula Kimper: I believe in you my soul

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

Are you ready for Walt Whitman’s birthday next weekend?  We hope you got him something nice, because he’s turning 200 — kind of a big one.  Dear Walt is such a big part of our American cultural fabric, especially in NYC, and we’re so happy to see so many artists and organizations celebrating his year. One of such artist is composer Paula Kimper, whose passion for Whitman has inspired her current “Melody Book” for Song of Myself project, in which she shares new settings of Leaves of Grass texts every week.  A huge undertaking, we applaud Paula for celebrating Whitman’s depth and impact in such a extensive and thoughtful way. 

Paula has also assembled quite an artistic team to perform her Whitman settings, including the very talented young baritone Nathaniel Sullivan, who is featured here singing this gorgeous setting of “I believe in you my soul” — Enjoy!

OH – have we mentioned that Paula Kimper is one of the composers for the new song cycle “After Stonewall”, commissioned by 5BMF and NYFOS, and curated by Laura Kaminsky?  Don’t miss this incredible World Premiere on June 11 in Manhattan!

Laura Kaminsky & Leah Maddrie: Right to Life

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

Every five years or so, we at 5BMF like to go all out and commission twenty composers to write a new song each about this wild, wonderful, gritty, overwhelming city we call our home. For our Five Borough Songbook, Vol. II we were delighted to have the amazing Laura Kaminsky on the roster, and she decided to work with her friend and fellow Bronx resident, poet Leah Maddrie. It was such a pleasure to get to know Leah, who came to several performances and participated in our Creator Chats as well.

The result of Laura and Leah’s collaboration was “Right to Life”, an intensely thought-provoking glimpse into some of the less glamorous parts of city life. Through Leah’s words and Laura’s setting, we come upon a seemingly mundane scene on a subway platform, but are soon forced to consider how unavailable the ‘American Dream’ is to so many. These women created a truly stirring work here, and we’re so grateful to have this song in our collection.

Coincidentally (or is it??), the baritone featured here is none other than Jorell Williams, who will appear in Laura’s NYFOS Next show on June 11 (got your tickets yet??).  Thomas Bagwell was the pianist, at the Brooklyn Premiere of our Songbook’s Volume II, a couple years back:

John Wallowitch: Bruce

This week’s Song of the Day is hosted by Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer, the Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, of Five Boroughs Music Festival.

A drag song!  There had to be one, and Steve B. sure picked a winner.  Much to my regret, I had never heard of John Wallowitch until Steve introduced me to this hilarious and memorable song.  The sharp-witted Wallowitch and his impeccable rhymes make me grin whenever I recall them.  I also have a special appreciation for the eponymous hero, Bruce, which was also my father’s name.  It’s nearly impossible, albeit incredibly amusing, to imagine my dad in any of the scenarios depicted in these lyrics.

Here’s a clip of John Wallowitch performing “Bruce”

As fabulous as this performance is, however, you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen Steve Blier and Matt Boehler do this song.  I’m in stitches the entire time, EVERY time.  Don’t miss Manning the Canon on June 25th!

NYFOS@Juilliard: Day 1

Steven Blier (photo Liv Hoffman)

Starting a new project is like starting a new love affair. You come in with excitement and high hopes, and you promise yourself that it’s going to go smoothly, fueled on daily progress and sustained industry.

In reality, of course, every day brings its moments of bliss and its moments of blister. Day one was largely bliss. We began with a read-through of the whole show, and while it felt about as long as Die Götterdämmerung, each act didn’t actually run much more than 45 or 50 minutes, a perfectly manageable length. In the previous semester I’d had the leisure to work on most of the solo pieces and duos, and they mostly remained in beautiful shape, with some stunning performances. The ensemble pieces, however, had not gotten as much attention—it was very difficult to get everyone together in one room at the same time during the semester, and we managed it only once. Assembling the group numbers smoothly therefore depended on everyone reading and assimilating my rather detailed messages and my musical scrawls sent as PDFs. This is apparently a mushy area for some people, and I admit there were a few moments when I felt my blood pressure spiking.

There’s no denying, however, that this cast is comprised of seven amazingly stylish performers, endowed with rhythm, humor, sensitivity, and breathtakingly beautiful voices. And it was a blast to watch director Mary Birnbaum and choreographer Adam Cates work their magic. These two bring so much imagination and craft to these songs, most of which I have known for decades. Harry, Hoagy, and Harold is off and running—no, flying.

Juilliard1The picture is from the opening song of the show, Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Old Music Master.” In this piece, Dimitri Katotakis plays a 19th century composer who is visited by two emanations from the future; they tell him that jazz will take over the world in a hundred years and he’d better learn to swing if he wants his music to survive. In Mary and Adam’s staging, the ghostly spirits are Dimitri’s coatrack (played by Amanda Lynn Bottoms) and desk (played by Kelsey Lauritano); they come to life and shake some serious booty. Dimitri, the old music master, is convinced.

Come hear these young talents in Harry, Hoagy, and Harold on January 13, 7:30pm at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at The Juilliard School (tickets here) or on January 17, 3pm at Flushing Town Hall (tickets here).

Song of the Day: December 11

5BMFThis week’s Song of the Day selections come from the founders of Five Boroughs Music Festival Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer. NYFOS is partnering with 5BMF in January to bring our NYFOS@Juilliard program Harry, Hoagy, and Harold to Flushing Town Hall.  Thanks, Jesse & Donna!

We’ve come to our final SOTD post for this week, and what fun it has been to share just a handful of our favorite NYC-themed songs – especially a couple from our own Five Borough Songbook. For our final song, we’ve gone to one of the most beloved and enduring musical tributes to New York City: Harry Warren’s classic “Lullaby of Broadway”, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1936.

Written for the film Gold Diggers of 1935 – which is NOT, surprisingly, about rough-and-tumble prospectors in California, but in fact presents a convoluted storyline involving multiple money-grabbing manipulators – the song has remained popular and has been recorded by the likes of The Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Bette Midler, and more.

And of course (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT), Harry Warren just happens to be one of the composers featured in Harry, Hoagy and Harold, the wonderful NYFOS@Juilliard show that we, 5BMF, have the honor of presenting at Flushing Town Hall on January 17! More info here.

Here’s the original clip of the song from Gold Diggers of 1935, with a very minimalistic and slightly spooky single shot of a face slowly coming into view:

Here what has to be the most chill version of the song ever, performed with ultimate hipness by the Mel-Tones (what, you don’t regularly lounge around your living room with friends, casually crooning out jazzy harmonies??)

And because she’s Donna’s favorite, here’s Doris Day:

Thanks again to NYFOS for letting us take over the blog this week! Signing off with all our best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year!
Jesse Blumberg & Donna Breitzer
Five Boroughs Music Festival

Song of the Day: December 10

5BMFThis week’s Song of the Day selections come from the founders of Five Boroughs Music Festival Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer. NYFOS is partnering with 5BMF in January to bring our NYFOS@Juilliard program Harry, Hoagy, and Harold to Flushing Town Hall.  Welcome, Jesse & Donna!

If thinking about NYC Songs reminds us again of our very own Five Borough Songbook, does that make us narcissists??  Well, sorry… we’ll be taking our leave soon, but before we do…

As we said the other day, it’s almost impossible to choose from our 20 commissioned songs, but we thought we’d share this one for two reasons. First, we know that NYFOS audiences are already familiar with, and likely delighted by, the songwriting of Gabriel Kahane, and his uncanny knack for capturing the feel and mood of a place or city. This song, about his neighborhood in Brooklyn, is no exception.  Second, we wanted to give NYFOS fans a glimpse of the beautiful piano and stage at Flushing Town Hall, where (subtle hint alert!) we’ll be presenting Harry, Hoagy, & Harold on January 17th.

Here are pianist Jocelyn Dueck and mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert Levitt, performing at the Queens Premiere of our Five Borough Songbook, back in November 2011…

Coney Island Avenue
words by Gabriel Kahane 

The Chinese laundry, the Puerto Rican fruit stand,
the probably illegal, definitely sketchy,
Hasidic copy shop.  slash passport office.

The agro fortune teller: boy, lemme read your palm.
the ostensible leper, I know, it’s not funny.
Dunkin’ Donuts!  one of five within a six block jaunt,
six blocks that I often haunt.
Don’t tell me you don’t have a soft spot for their iced coffee.

Coney Island Avenue, trusted and dutiful thoroughfare,
busted and beautiful borough where I live.

The ornery rabbi.  Okay, he’s not a rabbi.
he makes copies of my keys.
at the hardware store that’s never open,
with the clerk who comes up to my knees.

the socialist coffeeshop.  with the nasty vegan cupcakes,
and the underwhelming cappuccino.

Coney Island Avenue, trusted and dutiful thoroughfare,
busted and beautiful borough where I live.

The field where the taxis go to sleep.
My love and I eat dinner on our lawn,
and watch the people pass as evening moves on,
they make their way to Coney Island Avenue,
trusted and dutiful thoroughfare,
busted and beautiful borough where I live.

In related news, there’s a rumor going around that there will be a “Five Borough Songbook, version 2.0” in 5BMF’s upcoming 10th Season.  We can neither confirm nor deny…

Song of the Day: December 9

5BMFThis week’s Song of the Day selections come from the founders of Five Boroughs Music Festival Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer. NYFOS is partnering with 5BMF in January to bring our NYFOS@Juilliard program Harry, Hoagy, and Harold to Flushing Town Hall.  Welcome, Jesse & Donna!

Thinking about 5BMF’s Inaugural program the other day got us all nostalgic, and that, coupled with some of the insanities we’re hearing in politics lately, made us think that we could all use a reminder of the words engraved inside New York Harbor’s Statue of Liberty. Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem The New Colossus was written for the dedication of the monument, and Lee Hoiby chooses the last few lines for his welcoming and stately setting.

There are many renditions of this song on YouTube, but to us, none more satisfying than that by mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy and pianist Jocelyn Dueck. Under their expressive care, this song opened that first 5BMF concert, and the rest is history. We remember fondly how Paula began by reading Lazarus’ lines not set by Hoiby, and here you can hear the full poem as we heard it that night, both spoken and sung.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Song of the Day: December 8

5BMFThis week’s Song of the Day selections come from the founders of Five Boroughs Music Festival Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer. NYFOS is partnering with 5BMF in January to bring our NYFOS@Juilliard program Harry, Hoagy, and Harold to Flushing Town Hall.  Welcome, Jesse & Donna!

Oh! What a Charming City…

New York City has been a muse for poets and songwriters since the town’s earliest days. There are literally thousands of titles on Wikipedia’s List of songs about New York City, the majority of these dating from the 20th and 21st centuries. But of course, people were writing and singing about the Big Apple well before Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Alicia Keys and Jay Z made it cool. For today’s SOTD, we wanted to go back much further in time, to pre-1900’s New York.

Poking around for really old music is best done in the library, of course, but sometimes the internet does offer up a little gem. In doing a little sleuthing for this blog, we came upon the 19th century ditty “Oh! What a Charming City” by John Allison Gairdner, published in 1831. While we didn’t have as much luck finding a recording, the sheet music (and charming cover artwork) can be viewed online courtesy of Baylor University’s collection of digitized sheet music. The poetry, also by Gairdner, is an earnest ode to NYC:

The ardent, romantic,
The charming god of song,
Cross’s lately th’At-lantic
Nor thought the voy’ge long;
He tripp’d along in shoes of cork,
Singing many a ditty,
But he chang’d his song when he reache’d New York,
To what a charming City.

[CHORUS]
New York! New York!
Oh! what a charming City.
New York! New York!
Oh! what a charming City.

2. In Bowery, in Broadway,
He rambl’d up and down,
Took byway, and oddway,
Resolve to see the town;
And on he went, he sung this song,
“Now, is it not a pity,”
I should have stay’d away so long,
From such a charming City.

3. Here Freedom, and duty,
And truth, and taste remain,
Here honour, and beauty,
And love, and valour reign;
Then hither Freedom’s friends resort,
The grave, the gay, the witty,
For here I’ll henceforth keep my court,
In this delightful City.

We at 5BMF happen to have our own history when it comes to New York City as musical inspiration: In 2011 we commissioned the Five Borough Songbook in honor of our fifth season in 2011-2012. Twenty unique composers each contributed a brand-new song inspired by places, themes and poetry of NYC, resulting in a wonderfully diverse and compelling collection of vocal works.<

Choosing just one of these 20 songs to share here today is like trying to choose a favorite flavor of ice cream (impossible), but Scott Wheeler's "At Home in Staten Island" seems to fit well: the poem, by Charles Mackay, was published in the weekly London periodical All The Year Round in 1869. Wheeler’s setting for soprano and violin draws on Victorian parlor song and older English folk song styles. Here is the track from our Five Borough Songbook album (GPR Records, 2012), performed by the wonderful violinist Harumi Rhodes and the luminous soprano Martha Guth:

My true love clasped me by the hand,
And from our garden alley,
Looked o’er the landscape seamed with sea,
And rich with hill and valley.
And said, “We’ve found a pleasant place
As fair as thine and my land,
A calm abode, a flowery home
In sunny Staten Island.

“Behind us lies the teeming town
With lust of gold grown frantic;
Before us glitters o’er the bay,
The peaceable Atlantic.
Here let us rest, a little while —
Not rich enough to buy land,
And pass a summer well content
In bowery Staten Island.”

“A little while,” I made reply
“A little while — one summer:
For, pleasant though the land may be
To any fresh new comer,
I miss the primrose in the dell,
The blue-bell in the wild wood,
And daisy glinting through the grass,
The comrade of my childhood.

“Give me the throstle on the bough,
The blackbird and the linnet,
Or any bird that sings a song
As if its heart were in it.
And not your birds of gaudier plume,
That you can see a mile hence,
And only need, to be admired,
The priceless charm of silence.

“There’s drone, I grant, of wasps and bees,
And sanguinary hornets,
That blow their trumps as loud and shrill
As regimental cornets.
And all night long the bull-frogs croak
With melancholy crooning,
Like large bass-viols out of gear,
And tortured in the tuning.

“And then those nimble poisonous fiends,
The insatiable mosquitoes
That come in armies noon and night,
To plague, if not to eat us.
The devil well deserves his name,
That sent them to the dry land;
Let us away across the sea,
Far, far from Staten Island!”

“Ah, well!” my true love said and smiled,
“There’s shade to every glory;
There’s no true paradise on earth
Except in song or story.
The place is fair, and while thou’rt here,
Thy land shall still be my land,
And all the Eden earth affords
Be ours in Staten Island.”

Song of the Day: December 7

5BMFThis week’s Song of the Day selections come from the founders of Five Boroughs Music Festival Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer. NYFOS is partnering with 5BMF in January to bring our NYFOS@Juilliard program Harry, Hoagy, and Harold to Flushing Town Hall.  Welcome, Jesse & Donna!

Well, first let us say what a treat it is to be guest-curating this week!  While Five Boroughs Music Festival doesn’t present song programs exclusively, they’ve always been a big part of our chamber music diet. And in that sense, NYFOS has always been a shining beacon to us, with its constantly surprising and thoroughly entertaining programming. We were so proud when our Blier-led Manning the Canon show graduated to the NYFOS Mainstage a few years back. And this season boasts another great moment in our relationship, as we bring the beloved NYFOS@Juilliard program “off-campus” to Flushing Town Hall on January 17th!  (Tickets available here!)

Shameless plug completed, now to the music! In November 2007, we kicked off Five Boroughs Music Festival with inaugural performances in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Naturally, our very first program featured a whole mess of ‘NYC Songs,’ including this Rodgers & Hart classic, in a charming performance by tenor Scott Murphree and pianist Jocelyn Dueck. Those of you who are familiar with 5BMF’s modus operandi might find this first entry surprising, considering what an effort we’re always making to combat ‘Manhattan-centricity’ when it comes to live chamber music performances in NYC. But we of course love that two other boroughs are mentioned in the song almost immediately, and other places all around the city soon follow. (Gentle Yonkers-dwellers, we enjoy that you’re mentioned too, even if you’re not technically residents of the Five Boroughs.)

Here’s a wonderfully endearing version from the 1929 Makers of Melody.  We’ll just leave it here:

And now with all the magical vocalism and style of the legendary Ella Fitzgerald:

Stay tuned for more geographically-informed song selections this week!

Jesse Blumberg & Donna Breather
Five Boroughs Music Festival

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org