Tori Amos is a truly captivating performer. Example: I made the mistake of keeping the youtube track running as I was coming up with this intro and quickly forgot how to form words in my brain and type them, as her voice overrode my mental circuits. Amos runs the vocal gamut in Yes Anastasia, which is also quite a compositional feat, positively Schubertian in the cyclical nature of its material. As SNL’s Stefon would say, this song has everything: spectral Russian duchesses, a two minute piano solo, symphonic strings out of nowhere, gut-punching irony. I don’t claim to be entirely sure what it’s about, but when I heard it for the first time as a teenager I know I received some kind of message, about the infinite possibilities offered by songwriting and the dangers of being a woman in this world. We’ll see how brave you are.
Many works by the famed medieval poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut are formes fixes: complex musico-poetic structures requiring skill and finesse to create. This is an example of one such form, a rondeau. In order for a rondeau to work, the first phrase has to hinge musically, prosodically, and semantically both to the second phrase and to itself, creating a fascinating challenge for the composer/writer. Because Doulz Viaire Gracieus is quite a short rondeau, it’s easy to hear its form–and to appreciate the exquisite polyphony and fantastically outlandish harmonies within.
What is it about vocoders? They add a distance to the human voice that, in the skilled hands of Laurie Anderson, renders it omnipotent, supernatural. And marching through the uncanny valley right alongside her processed singing is that “ah ah ah” ostinato, both weirdly neutral and unsettlingly robotic. The simple mi-re-do-ish tune, with its comforting tonal harmonies, lies in creepy conflict with the unsettling ransom-note lyrics. Somehow this song manages to get at something sinister about empire and technology while remaining catchy, funny, and oddly touching.
The underrated Earl Kim’s setting of Samuel Beckett’s “thither” occurs twice in Now and Then, Kim’s 1981 song cycle for soprano, flute, viola, and harp. At just over 30 seconds, “thither” the song is a haunting shiver, a ghost aria, unforgettable even without the reprise. Beckett’s snatches of text, Kim’s spiky yet delicately mournful music, and Karol Bennet’s vulnerable, seeking performance have stuck with me since I first heard this recording in 1999, proving that you can pack a punch in a tiny package.
Earl Kim, “thither” from Now and Then for soprano, flute, viola, and harp.
Along with our April 24th 30th Anniversary concert, NYFOS will end our season (I don’t think our season really ends, but maybe it does on paper) with the last installment of NYFOS Next featuring Clarice Assad.
NYFOS has always been attached to Latin music since our second season (29 years ago) when Steven Blier presented From Rio to Buenos Aires. Argentinean and Brazilian song in one night. Since then we’ve had over a dozen programs focusing on the riches of the music from the Caribbean and our colleagues to the south, and their Iberian forbears. Next season we are currently planning to celebrate the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca in song. But we have never really had a living Protagonista take on an entire show. Yes, Clarice Assad’s music was presented on our Compositora concert just a few seasons ago, but I thought it was time to hear from a real Latina with her own voice, and her own music; someone who has this music in her veins and voice since birth, and can help us remember the recent Brazilian legacy, and show us what is going on right now in the fabulous musical culture of Brazilian song. Ms. Assad is that person. See you on May 4th at SubCulture! Here is her “Maria Maria” by Milton Nascimento.
I wanted to talk today about partnerships, which seems particularly apt since Emily and I are presenting Song of the Day collaboratively!
From ages 13 to 18 I would spend as much of my time as possible accompanying the music lessons of my fellow schoolmates. It taught me—despite being quite unaware at the time—a multitude of musical skills that would go on to inform my career. To make good chamber music it’s not good enough to concentrate solely on your part. One must be fully aware of the other performers and their parts too in order to make truly collaborative music. I found this kind of music-making desperately satisfying, more so even than solo performing. The electricity of that musical symbiosis (presuming you have a partner who is equally into collaborating as you are!) is utterly exhilarating and without compare. It’s the ultimate partnership.
When I first had the pleasure of hearing my first NYFOS concert I realized, as many of you do, too, that I was witness to an extraordinary collaborative feat: a performance that was greater than the sum of its parts thanks to immaculate and engaging singing, ever-creative piano playing, and brilliant combinations of words and music.
Song composition is an equally exhilarating exercise in partnership: composers muse over poetry and prose and think of ways in which it speaks to them, and how they might further inform the listener of its moods and intentions through their music. The creative possibilities are endless. One of my favorite composers is Benjamin Britten, who, in addition to a long and distinguished career in that field also enjoyed an active life as a performer. He frequently composed for and performed with for his life partner and muse, Peter Pears, himself a superb if somewhat idiosyncratic tenor. That partnership prompted Britten to write some of the most expressive and imaginative compositions such as Peter Grimes, the War Requiem, and a host of original songs and arrangements.
As a young artist at the Britten-Pears School a number of years ago I had the pleasure and privilege of further immersing myself in the musical and personal worlds of Britten and Pears. The couple’s home since 1957 was the Red House in Aldeburgh, a charming seaside village on the English Coast. During the customary tour we were shown the many features of interest, including the foot-operated bell under the dining room table with which Britten would entertain young children by “magically” summoning the housekeeper, and the cowbells on the stairs that Rostropovich would noisily ring to wake the entire household when he was staying there.
But most poignant was the reminder that homosexuality in England was illegal until 1967. Despite having separate bedrooms, their living together was a great risk, and several of Britten and Pears’ colleagues were imprisoned for suspected homosexual acts. It made me realize the extent of the risk that flowed throughout their relationship, and how that must have further informed Britten’s composing and their performing. It is also an enduring reminder that love conquers all in the end.
To close, I wanted to share a performance of these two great men performing Schumann’s Mondnacht from the Op.39 Liederkreis, written in 1841, the composer’s ‘year of song’. It was recorded live as part of an Aldeburgh Festival recital given in the Jubilee Hall on 15 June, 1958. The heavens stoop down to kiss the earth in a mystical nocturnal scene full of the romanticism and atmosphere we associate with the lieder tradition. Theorists and musicologists have written more about this song than perhaps any other. As a student I loved to discover that, among many other things, Schumann used the notes E-B-E (B-natural is H in German) to spell “Ehe”, German for “marriage”, in the piano part. The marriage of music and words is indeed sans pareil. Sadly only an extract of this particular recording was available, so listen to Janet Baker’s performance to hear the entire song.
Excerpt of Britten/Pears performance of Mondnacht
Janet Baker sings “Mondnacht”
‘The Girls of Summer’ by Stephen Sondheim has long been a favorite song of mine. It was a treat to hear it sung so beautifully last week by Meredith Lustig at the NYFOS gala at Carnegie Hall, with Sondheim himself in view of the stage. What a perfect song this is: sultry and mournful, with a twist just at the end. This is a song that I remember from several NYFOS programs, and I have a fond memory of singing it a few years ago, accompanied by James at the piano. Yes, my English husband can play Sondheim just fine.
I have practiced Bikram Yoga since April 2002; a practice that began in Santa Fe where I attended college, and this practice continued when I moved to NYC. James and I practice yoga together in the hot room, and we started taking classes together soon after we started dating in the summer of 2011. Bikram NYC is a wonderful community of people and every so often the owners of the studios present a cabaret performance featuring students and teachers from the community (all proceeds are donated to a charity). The Triad Theater on west 72nd street often hosts this cabaret evening, and I had the pleasure of performing on the program several years ago. It is fun to be out with people in the world when you typically see them for 90 minutes of grueling exercise in a 110 degree and 40% humidity room wearing minimal amounts of clothing!
Drag Queen Chelsea Piers was our hostess for the evening, and when James accompanied me to the stage she asked, “who is this?” and I replied, “my pianist”. “I bet he is,” Chelsea replied. There may or may not be a video on YouTube somewhere of this performance.
James and I were lucky enough to share the stage that evening with Brad Mehldau and his wife Fleurine, who, incidentally, are also students of Bikram Yoga. It was a memorable evening! I sang Jake Heggie’s ‘Animal Passion’ from Natural Selection, a throwback from my master’s recital program in addition to ‘The Girls of Summer’. Those chords are so nostalgic, especially during these first days of spring as we have a foretaste of the summer ahead. This version contains some stunning singing by Dawn Upshaw; she spins this tune so beautifully. And we are happy to share this song on a hot day that feels like the dawn of summer here in NYC.
James and I are thrilled to be hosting #SongoftheDay this week. Music is what brought us together. We met singing in church, while he was music director at St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square, and I was a last-minute soprano sub for an Evensong service (quartet!) in May 2010. The rest is history, as they say. We celebrated our wedding in July 2016 in the Berkshires, with an additional blessing ceremony in the UK at Jesus College, Cambridge (James’ alma mater) in August. I had toyed with the idea of singing this song at our wedding in July, but in the end we were happy not to be performing on our memorable day!
Growing up, this tune was one of my absolute favorites. Jay Lichtmann, one of our dear family friends (and principal trumpet for many years with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, where my mom is still a violist) made me a mix tape in 1986 with jazz standards sung by Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. Needless to say, I fell hard and fast for these amazing ladies. I sang all the time: in choir, around the house, while I was practicing the violin. I am happy to share this song on our first day hosting #SongoftheDay for NYFOS. I love the history of this song, and the lyricist shares the name of my paternal grandfather, who was Dr. Jacob Werne (of Russian Jewish origin). Fun fact: both of my paternal grandparents were pathologists, who lived in Jamaica, Queens; they were avid classical music fans and devoted patrons of Carnegie Hall. The Andrews Sisters made this song quite famous (it became their first major hit, earning them a gold record, the first ever to a female vocal group), though Ella’s rendition is my favorite. The orchestration reminds me of some fabulous evenings spent at Henry’s listening to the Goyishe Christmas program. Since it was recently the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth, I wanted to recognize her centennial with our first post of the week. This is also a fitting tune to dedicate to my dear, darling husband on the week of his birthday (May 5th)!
History courtesy of Wikipedia:
“Bei Mir Bistu Shein” (Yiddish: בײַ מיר ביסטו שיין, “To Me You’re Beautiful”) is a popular Yiddish song composed by Jacob Jacobs (lyricist) and Sholom Secunda (composer) for a 1932 Yiddish comedy musical, I Would If I Could (in Yiddish, Men Ken Lebn Nor Men Lost Nisht, “You could live, but they don’t let you”), which closed after one season (at the Parkway Theatre in Brooklyn, New York City). The score for the song transcribed the Yiddish title as “Bay mir bistu sheyn”. The original Yiddish version of the song (in C minor) is a dialogue between two lovers.
Our final pairing this week: these songs don’t have a lot in common, but each makes us smile.
Meredith Monk: The Tale
I adore this video and watch it when i need a mood lifter. It’s short and totally charming. The performance captures Meredith’s great spirit—her purity, humor, uniqueness.
And it’s a rare example of Meredith with her hair loose (well, in a ponytail) and singing using standard English words. Enjoy!
Rufus Wainwright: Oh, What a World
In 1975, the folkie singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III recorded a song about his newborn son being nursed by his mother, called “Rufus is a Tit Man.” Little did we know. While Rufus would inherit some of his dad’s sardonic humor, he’s more in the mold of his idol Judy Garland–fabulous, dramatic, prone to both excess and dreamy tenderness. “Oh What a World,” from his 2003 magnum opus Want is almost ridiculously busy, but that’s the fun of it. In a song ostensibly about feeling lonely on a train, we begin with a slow-march oom-pah tuba and Rufus intoning “men reading fashion magazines.” Then, one by one, come choruses, strings, and, as one critic said, “horns, harmony and hope.” There are numerous allusions to Ravel’s Bolero, and of course there’s Judy. The title refers to the Wicked Witch’s dying words in The Wizard of Oz, and as everything is fading away, listen for the “dreams really do come true” quote from “Over the Rainbow.”
Today’s pairing: two lullabies.
Sinead O’Connor: My Darling Child
All the dark and stormy Sinead stories aside, her voice is something exquisite—and I think never more so than on the album Universal Mother. This was her fourth album, and she dedicated it to her son who was 6 or 7 at the time. The album as a whole hit me hard when it came out more than 20 years ago—it’s an almost painfully beautiful account of motherhood (I remember giving it to my own mother, who had it on rotation in her car for years). Sinead’s voice is at its most bare and exposed, her Irish accent on display with those breathy t’s and r’s (how can a “t” be breathy? with Sinead they are). Rolling Stone described her voice on this album as “tissue-fragile.” Some songs have the famous Sinead rage, but most of all she whisper-sings her love for her child, and really for all children as they face growing up. The song “My Darling Child” is the most tender lullaby I’ve heard.
Traditional: El cant dels ocells
When I was a kid there were big FM radio stations that basically played rock, but gave their hosts a free rein to play long album cuts, obscurities, and even things that were definitely not rock. My local outlet was WMMS in Cleveland. One night, among the crickets of Cuyahoga Falls, I heard the strangest song, sung by the most beautiful voice. Full of mystery and longing, it spoke a language I did not know, and while I could not make out a word of it, it lingered in the memory. Then I heard the same tune sung by Joan Baez in a different, less alluring arrangement. Searches of record store bins yielded nothing, and eventually I gave up hope of ever finding the song.
Years later, I picked up a box set of CDs called The Fabulous Victoria de los Angeles, primarily for the exquisite Ravel and Debussy selections. I wasn’t so much interested in the Montsalvatge and Mompou, but on disk 2, among Three Traditional Folksongs, I found my treasure: “El cant dels ocells”. Little did I know this was a famous song, beloved of Pablo Casals, who played his version of it at the beginning of every recital after his exile. I had no idea that it was known by every Catalan or, for that matter, that it was a Christmas lullaby (otherwise I might have checked out the Joan Baez Christmas album!) But there it was, every bit as wonderful as I had remembered. One mystery remained: whose gorgeous arrangement was this? It is the work of Antonio Ros-Marba, who on this recording conducts the Patronato Orquestra Ciudad de Barcelona.
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