We are gearing up for a concert performance of Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer on Nov. 19 at Merkin Concert Hall. No For An Answer came together in 1941 and had a very short run over a few weekends at what is now City Center. No For An Answer was Blitzstein’s follow-up to his 1936 The Cradle Will Rock. Known as “agitation propaganda” (agit prop) in the Brechtian tradition, Cradle caught an important slice of the American zeitgeist when labor was beginning to organize against big business. This is also the central theme of Cradle. Blitzstein’s musical style is often compared to Kurt Weill’s. They wrote in the language of the common man and woman. And Blitzstein would easily move between spoken language (often in a a specific rhythm) and song. He sought “actors who could sing a little” rather than opera singers. Here is the opening number of The Cradle Will Rock. The young Patti LuPone is joined by Tim Robbins and Henry Stram. Your truly is at the piano. It was my first musical job in NYC. 1984.
This week we’ve been surveying the Spaniards. But today I had an extraordinary discussion with my class at Hunter College. I teach a single class in the Theater department. It is called Singing. We sing of course, but today we had a deep discussion about race and music. In Dahomey, Shuffle Along, Porgy and Bess, Four Saints In Three Acts, Flower Drum Song, etc. and of course Hamilton. Everyone came alive. The discussion was amazing. I think the young people of NYC are wonderful and I am grateful to my students. I led off the class with this recording of Gershwin (from Porgy and Bess) by Nina Simone. Check out her Chopin/Debussy piano chops just before she lets loose with her full voice at the end.
We’ve been in Spain, or thereabouts, all week on Song of The Day. Here is something I would call flamenco style. Or at least this arrangement is. Talk about an entrance! This is a song that Garcia Lorca loved. Our Lorca concert will be April 24th in NYC.
We at NYFOS know Jean Ritchie as the author of “Now Is The Cool Of The Day”, a song we’ve performed many times. It’s a great song that reminds us we are in control of our planet. And that the day of reckoning is at hand. Did we keep the grasses green and the water pure? But Jean Ritchie was known more as a folk singer and dulcimer player. Here she is in an old American tune. If you know Benjamin Britten’s folk tunes, you may recognize this as his setting of “Wally Wally”. Jean Ritchies version seems to predate the Britten. I find that the tuning and purity of her slight soprano bring a sad wisdom to the song.
At our last NYFOS concert we presented a huge song cycle by composer Roberto Sierra. I was drawn to this music’s dark side, and its exploration of uneasy human emotion. Maybe that’s one reason I seem to be drawn to this marvelous music from Spain. Here is some flamenco as sung by Pepe Marchena. Most of us think of flamenco as a fiery dance, complete with rhythmic and percussive footwork. The heart of flamenco is singing. Notice how attentive his audience is. They clearly think this worth their reverence and full attention. And what a nuanced and beautiful vocal style. No note stands still.
In late 2017, Michael and I were busy trying to finalize the 2018–2019 NYFOS season. We had settled on the W. C. Handy project, and we were thinking about celebrating a famous poet on a later evening. (That poet turned out to be García Lorca, featured in our April 24 program.) But the third show remained a mystery. Then I heard the December NYFOS Next concert down at Elebash Hall. That program was devoted to Leonard Bernstein and other composers who had been influenced by him, and it included Daniel Sabzghabaei’s At the Door. I was transfixed by Daniel’s music, filled with the fascinating sonorities in the piano—including the visual frisson of seeing the piano lid raised all the way to 90 degrees, functioning as the barrier between the lovers—and an imaginative, daring use of the human voice. I told Michael, “We have got to bring that music to our mainstage series. Everyone needs to hear Daniel’s—what is it, a cantata?” At first we thought of pairing At the Door with other stories of thwarted lovers, picking up on the work’s story. But we saw a more interesting possibility, something to address our current national quandary about welcoming people of other nationalities into our country. Daniel is Persian-American, and At the Door is set to a poem in Farsi. NYFOS has ventured far afield in its 31-year history—a couple of years ago we did a song in Zulu. But it was time to open our borders even further, and Daniel Sabzghabaei proved to be our passport.
The debate on immigration to America was in the headlines when we first discussed tonight’s program and, as we predicted, the debate has continued with full-blown xenophobia on the extreme right, and conciliatory entry quotas on the other side. America was once proud to be a melting pot. Suddenly we are being told that the national food is to be Wonder Bread. To shed some light on the issue, we decided to celebrate a group of new American citizens and first-generation composers who work and reside in the U.S. Our roster includes professors at distinguished universities and award-winning performers: Brazilian-American, Chinese-American, Persian-American, and Puerto Rican (culturally hyphenated, if not technically). All of them are active in the ongoing development of our nation’s music, character, and ethos. Their musical voices span two generations, and draw deeply from their varied geographic and cultural origins. Tonight we are proud to celebrate their work as we revel in the new sonorities and rhythms they bring to American music. We look forward, with some hope, to a day when artists from everywhere might have the freedom to work wherever they like, and be welcomed with open arms in America.
—Steven Blier, with Michael Barrett
Elementos (Elements) (2010)
Music by Clarice Assad / Text by Daniel Basilio
All the songs in ELEMENTOS were born out of some kind of personal pain: pain that turns into introspection or fuel for change, heartbreak giving way to happiness, or heartache forcing us to make life-decisions. Written between 1998 and 2010 and conceived with an operatic female voice in mind (though I had never met an opera singer when I sketched the first tune), they were just a way of coping with life. I left them in a drawer along with many other pieces, but I was thankful I’d saved them when I met lyricist Daniel Basilio. Basilio, inspired by the stories, wrote words to draw the connections between human emotions and the four elements: earth, fire, water and air.
They do not appear in chronological order. I began humming “Esconderijo,” the finale one day, when I was about 20 years old, when things felt just right after a long dark period. At 26, I wrote “Maré de Água Viva,” the water movement, a painful realization that life was made up of permanent change. “Flor de Lã” and “Fogaréu” I wrote at 32, during a confusing time of loss and fear. Writing the music eventually set things into motion, forcing an imaginary bridge-burning after a wounding experience.
In 2016, the San Antonio-based SOLI ensemble commissioned a chamber version of this piece and invited me to perform with them. It was a great experience and began a beautiful collaboration between us. But tonight— so many years later—will be the first time these songs come to life the way I had first imagined them—for mezzo-soprano and piano.
Three Chinese Love Songs (1988)
Traditional Chinese Folk Poetry / Translation to English by Bright Sheng
Three Chinese Love Songs was requested by Seiji Ozawa as one of the commissioned works for the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 77th birthday at Tanglewood in August 1988. Prior to this, I had just finished a large orchestral work for the New York Chamber Symphony entitled H’un (Lacerations): In Memorium 1966–1976, a work about the “Cultural Revolution” in China. I composed H’un around the interval of the minor second instead of using any kind of melody or tune. Since it is about a tragic period in China, the work sounded harsh and dissonant, creating the drama and expressiveness I wished to evoke.
At the same time, the inevitable call for the search of tonality in my writing, though not necessarily in the sense of triads, was increasing daily. I needed to write something quite different. The Tanglewood commission was an opportunity that enabled me to fulfill this need and to explore other compositional ideas. Setting Chinese folk songs seemed natural and appropriate.
Three Chinese Love Songs was premiered on August 26th, 1988, on a program entitled “Tributes in Song to Leonard Bernstein” at Tanglewood. The performers were Lisa Saffer, soprano, Barton Fine, viola, and Yehudi Wyner, piano.
At The Door (2017)
This setting of Rumi’s Ghazal 436 is an intimate scene for high voice, medium voice, and piano which focuses on the bond between the the Lover and the Belovéd; a tenant which pervades not only much of Rumi’s output, but many of his Sufi contemporaries and is a focal point of Sufism as a whole. In this mystical sect of Islam, the relationship between the Lover and the Belovéd is a deep and extremely personal one for each of us. We, as the Lover, all desire oneness with the Belovéd yet are consistently unable to achieve this true unison of body, spirit, consciousness, psyche, and self. The Belovéd takes on different meanings for each of us; however, what remains consistent is the desire for oneness with that which is unattainable; the Belovéd is the amalgamation of intimacy. In this scene, these two figures converse separated by a door, the Lover requesting entry to the Belovéd’s abode, and the Belovéd questioning the Lovers intentions. While the two consistently come very close to each other, a true unification is never achieved, only brief spurts of fleeting sensuality and passionate intimacy abound, the ever present Door separating the two incessantly, the oneness constantly fleeting into the ether.
—Daniel Reza Sabzghabaei
33 Suenos (33 Dreams) (2018) American Premiere
Music by Roberto Sierra (b. 1953)
Poetry by Juan Carlos Garvayo / Translation to English by D. P. Snyder
During one of my visits to Spain, Juan Carlos Garvayo, my friend and collaborator of many years, handed me a book titled 33 Sueños with his name inscribed as the poet. For over two decades, he has premiered and performed many of my works but I had no idea he wrote poetry. I took the volume back with me to the USA, and once I had the chance to glance through it, I immediately decided to set all the poems for baritone and piano. Juan Carlos’ poetry immediately spoke to me; the oneiric aspect of the poems connected with my music—a term the often appears in my works is “like a dream”. The writing process was vertiginous, as one poem led to the next, in fact as in a dream.
This week I’ve been looking at some pretty famous songwriters who achieved fame for their populist style of singing and their unusual songs, Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez for example. Today my choice is Randy Newman. He’s one of our great American songwriters, but what I most admire about him is his choice of subject matter. It tends to be something specific. Something quirky, or a part of the human heart that usually doesn’t get discussed. He also has a killer sense of humor. I find his songs narrative, with telling harmonies and and simple melodies. Here he is in “Losing You.” It’s a conventional thing to sing about. But it isn’t about a lost love. It’s about the possibility of losing your love. Randy gets the human condition and sings about it with love.
What is a populist voice? People talk about Johnny Cash and sometimes Willy Nelson as authentic folksters, singing about the American experience, failures and aspirations. NYFOS was recently at Exeter Academy, one of our finest prep schools. I was busy conducting the orchestra, and Steve Blier was giving a vocal master class in another room. He mentioned Joan Baez as a vocal example. The student politely asked “who’s Joan Baez?” Boys and Girls, here is Joan Baez. She was big in the 60’s and 70’s and is still big as far as I’m concerned. I knew she was good when I was a kid, because my Dad couldn’t stand her. He also hated Barbara Streisand, so I figured they were both fabulous singers. I was right. Here she is singing Bob Dylan’s song “Forever Young” . NYFOS did this song recently at Juilliard for the Bolcom/Corigliano 80th birthday celebration. It was John Corigliano’s setting. I did it for John Guare’s 80th birthday. It’s a real beauty. Thanks, Bob.
We cover quite a bit of arcana in NYFOS concerts. Forgotten composers, obscure corners of the repertoire from A to Z. We delight in finding these treasures. Many of them defy classification. Is it a folk song, or a pop tune? We don’t think that’s of any importance really. A good song can give you so much information and emotion and history. Sometimes you have to dig for it. This week I’ll be looking at songwriters who are actually quite famous and known, but not well known to me. Leonard Cohen is one of those songwriters. Like Bob Dylan, he’s mostly considered a poet. His music is simple, sometimes to the point of being childish. It puts the focus on his words. Here is his “Famous Blue Raincoat”. It is really a letter. Can you tell to whom it’s written? It’s a long narrative to a frenemy of his. A few references are interesting to know about. When he talks about “going clear” he’s referring to Scientology, and slightly mocking his friend.” Lili Marlene” is a reference to a famous wartime tune in German. Cohen even quotes the tune of Lili Marlene (to the lyric “Jane came by with a lock of your hair”). It’s a personal, enigmatic song, and allows me to see how something (or someone like Leonard Cohen) so personal can become so popular. I think we all yearn to see the vulnerable side of people (hopefully in a kind way), and music and poetry is perhaps the best way to have this experience.
I’m hoping to enjoy my summer this year. We are just getting into it, and I’m already having lots of fun. I think it’s the long evenings that can make summer so special. Langorous dinners with friends al fresco. Extended dusk, and lingering twilight eventually yielding to the night sky. And it’s warm enough to enjoy the night sky. Just the thought of it conjures up memories for me, and maybe this summer I’ll create a few more. Reynaldo Hahn’s “L’heure Exquise” reminds me of these things. I usually don’t think of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and French art song as BFFs, but this recording is extraordinary. He sings so very slowly. Time does actually seem to stop. He was a great singer and maybe an even better musician, so it’s important to me to notice when someone like Fischer-Dieskau does something no one else would (or has), like in this performance. Enjoy your summer. Maybe it be full of beautiful music, the extraordinary, and exquisite moments.
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