Notes on the Program: Mediterranean

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published March 14, 2023

Note: Due to illness, this program’s song list has changed since the notes were written. It will be annotated from the stage at tonight’s performance.

When I hear the word “Mediterranean,” I immediately think of the Cannes Film Festival, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, and the superlative pizza I ate in Florence forty years ago. These European destinations seemed to be all the Mediterranean I required. But of course that body of water extends around the south of Italy, reaching as far as Lebanon and Israel. Since music has become my primary mode of travel these days, it seemed like a good idea to start a boat trip in Europe and keep sailing east, putting into as many ports as we could in 90 minutes. The result is today’s concert, which holds the NYFOS record for most languages in a single program: nine in total.

I’m a sucker for any show that includes Spanish music, and we have three great Iberian composers, all Catalonians: Eduardo Toldrà, Joaquín Nin, and Enrique Granados. Of them, Granados has the highest profile, probably due to his canonic piano suite Goyescas. As its title implies, that work is inspired by the paintings of Francisco Goya, whose eighteenth-century tapestries and and paintings offer a romantic vision of Spain’s past. These canvases were also the inspiration for Granados’s most famous song cycle, Tonadillas, each of which portrays the triumphs and despairs of love with vivid elegance. We’ve chosen two of the lesser-known Tonadillas: the moody blues of “El majo olvidado” (despair) and the sly, flirtatious “Las currutacas modestas” (triumph).

While Granados looked to Castilian Madrid for inspiration, Eduardo Toldrà stayed closer to his Catalan roots in Barcelona. Lacking a cornerstone work, he never became as famous outside of Spain as Granados. Yet he remains one of Barcelona’s spokespeople, a composer of tremendous charm and a superb songwriter. Castilian music is known for its sizzle and snap, while Catalan music leans towards the soft, impressionistic colors of nearby France, Toldrà’s stock in trade. In just two brief pages, his song “Canticel” embodies the exquisite beauty of Catalan music.

Cuban-born Joaquín Nin is famous for two things: he was the father of the famed writer Anaïs Nin; and he was the creator of four volumes of popular Spanish songs with brilliant accompaniments, a barrage of expressive markings, and extensive authorial notes. They range from the fancy to the fussy to the fabulous, but the best of them, like “Paño murciano,” are hot stuff.

Our next port of call is Italyand specifically the Mediterranean city of Naples. It was inevitable: for tenors, canzone napoletane are like catnip, and our tenor soloist Colin Aikins fell in love with a comparative rarity, “Chiove” by Evemero Nardella. Born, raised, and educated in Naples, Nardella spent his life as an orchestral conductor, while occasionally adding popular numbers to the Neapolitan songbook. The mournful theme of “Piogga” is a standard trope of the genre: a young man serenades his innamorata, a young woman who languishes on her sickbed, near death. Nardella bends the grim story into song of great warmth and charm.

Amilcare Ponchielli means exactly one thing to most music-lovers: a lavish outpouring of vitality and melody. Everything stops in my house when its on the radio. For those who don’t know opera, Ponchielli is the guy who wrote The Dance of the Hours, used to great effect by Walt Disney in Fantasia (elephants in tutus) and Allan Sherman (“Hello muddah, hello faddah”). But almost no one knows his piece for three voices and piano, “Il Pellegrino, il trovatore, ed il cavaliere.” It seems to have emerged in a volume of Ponchielli songs published in 1889, three years after the composer’s death. Perhaps these works were found among his manuscriptsnone of them has a date of composition. Obscure as it is, this full-throated trio has all the Ponchielli trademarks—good tunes, expert vocal writing, florid emotion. “Il Pellegrino, il trovatore, ed il cavaliere” is a group Geshrei in search of an opera.

I always think of Poulenc as a dyed-in-the-wool Parisian boulevardier. But that’s only part of his musical persona. In his 1948 song cycle Calligrammes he finds a way to evoke the sexy heat of the French Riviera. He took his inspiration from a set of poems Guillaume Apollinaire wrote at the beginning of World War Icalligrams, picture-poems where the the typesetting on the page mirrors the images in the words. These verses had haunted the composer for thirty years before he set them to music. We meet a young soldier on leave, enjoying the beauties of love and the splendors of high summer (“Vers le sud”). But finally, he must board a train back to Paris, where he will enlist in the army, leaving his lover behind while facing an uncertain future (“Voyage”). Exuberant, sexy, and profound, it is my favorite of all of Poulenc’s song cycles.

Dizzie Gillespie’s 1942 tune “A Night in Tunisia” flings us out of Europe and into the eastern part of the Mediterranean. The title wasn’t his idea; he claimed that it got slapped on later by “some genius”—Gillespie had never been to Tunisia. Still, it’s easy to see why that unknown “genius” wanted to change the original title, “Interlude.” The song was innovative, filled with Afro-Cuban rhythms, a sinuous chromatic melody, and an unusual chord progression that moves in snaky half-steps. Once it had a new title, it also got new, Tunisia-inspired lyrics by Jon Hendricksand the transformation was complete.

The soprano Joyce El-Khoury was the guide for our brief stopover in Lebanon. While she is famous for tackling the most challenging operas of Verdi and Donizetti, she is equally passionate about the music of Lebanon, her family’s homeland. She suggested we have a look at “A’tini nnaya,” a poem by Khalil Gibran set to music by Najib Hankash. Hankash, known as “the Wit of Lebanon,” was celebrated as a writer, an actor, a showman, and a sometime composer. A born humorist, he celebrated his country with joy and optimismthe middle- eastern king of light verse and humorous essays. He composed “A’tini nnaya” for the Lebanese singing star Fairouzand the rest is history.

This song has become a cultural touchstone for Lebanese people, a celebration their music, their landscape, and their national poet. When El-Khoury recently sang it in Lebanon at the end of a concert of arias, she said, “You could hear a pin drop in the hall. This is part of the fabric of Lebanese identity—everyone knows this song. But they’d always heard it sung in the typical Arabic styleno one expected to hear it in the voice of a classical singer. At the end,

the place exploded in applause.” Today we’re proud to carry Joyce’s mission forward another step, giving Hankash’s music an honored place in our Mediterranean tour.

Greek poets have inspired so many European composers and writers that it would have been easy to honor Greece with nothing other than German and French art songs. We chose just one, and the award went to Hugo Wolf’s “Anakreons Grab,” set to Goethe’s poem about one of Greece’s most revered ancient writers. The hushed grace of Wolf’s music turns the cadences of speech into melody with an almost uncanny eloquence. Anakreon himself might have been amused by the song’s near-religious veneration. Best known for his drinking songs and erotic poetry, he might have expected something earthier. But I have no problems with Wolf and Goethe—there’s plenty of sensuality in this brief piece.

For sparkle, we’ve got “I Achtida,” a Greek art song by Petros Petridis. Born in Turkey and educated in Paris, Petridis became a Greek citizen in 1913 at the age of 21. He remained a citizen of the world, with a perch in Paris and writing gigs with American and British journals. But his musical heart always remained in Greece, whose Byzantine modes and Hellenic themes filled his compositions.

I have long admired Mikis Theodorakis, Greece’s premiere composer, creator of film scores (Zorba the Greek, Serpico); a masterwork vocal piece about the Holocaust (The Ballad of Mauthausen); and over 1,000 songs. He was a major force in revitalizing Greek music by melding Western symphonic elements with Greek popular song and traditional Greek instruments, a style he called “metasymphonic.” Theodorakis not only led a large-scale cultural renaissance in his homeland, but was also an international freedom-fighter, resisting tyranny at home and abroad. His fierce, left-wing views could be abrasive; at various times he was virulently anti-American and anti-Israel. Above all, Theodorakis was a spokesperson for international and environmental issues, as well as a somewhat belligerent pacifist. In this program, we offer the mysterious “The Train Leaves at Eight,” a song of quiet, wrenching separation. It caught the fancy of Colin Aikins, and will serve as the first Theodorakis song in my repertoire.

Jules Massenet provides our ticket to Egypt with the aria “Voilà donc la terrible cité” from his opera Thaïs. Based on a novel by Anatole France, Thaïs tells the story of an ascetic Cenobite monk, Athanaël, who has been troubled by dreams of a courtesanThaïs—whom he’d seen some years ago in his native city, Alexandria. Believing that these dreams are sent by God, he resolves to find her, convert her to Christianity, and persuade her to enter a convent. He attains his goal, but not before he has fallen in love with her. Thaïs finds Godand dies; Athanaël finds his humanity—and collapses. Anatole France’s novel stresses the irony of this O. Henry-style paradox, but Massenet goes full-out Technicolor, digging into the sex-versus- religion drama so beloved of French audiences in the late-nineteenth century. In the aria we’re hearing today, Athanaël first evokes the beauties of his hometown, then curses it as a tawdrycesspool of lust with a dangerous penchant for “science.” Finally, he prays for a phalanx of angels to guide him. Massenet’s very sensual music tells us what his hero does not yet know: he is riding for a fall, and the spiritual purity of the monk is destined to give way to the desires of the man.

Our Mediterranean voyage ends in Israel with two passionateand completely differentviews of the Holy Land. The first is “Ve’ulai,” a song that is as iconic in Israel as “A’tini nnaya” is in Lebanon. The poem is by Rachel, a beloved Israeli poet who came to embody the early idealism of her country. She left Russia in the early years of the twentieth century, as part of Israel’s second great wave of immigration. Taking up residence at Kibbutz Kinneret, shecultivated the land with an optimism shared by the new settlers. But she eventually became sick with tuberculosis and could no longer remain on the Kibbutz. Moving to Tel Aviv, she felt lonely and isolated; six years later she finally succumbed to her illness.

During her city life, she created the lion’s share of the poems that would lift her into the pantheon of Israeli authors. “Ve’ulai” distills the sadness of Rachel’s post-Kibbutz life with terse simplicity: she imagines the place she loved, and wonders now if was all just a dream. The composer Yehuda Sharett set Rachel’s poem to music in 1931, the year Rachel died. He, too, lived on a kibbutz, where he became a successful choral teacher with a number of prominent students. While “Ve’ulai” is Yehuda Sharett’s only lasting success as a songwriter, his brother Moshe climbed to greater prestige: during the mid-1950s he became Israel’s second Prime Minister.

I Lombardi all prima crociata was Verdi’s fourth opera, and the first to be heard in the United States back in 1847. The intricate plot sweeps us from Milan to Palestine, fueled by warring religions, a murderous basso who covets his tenor-brother’s wife, and a pair of Romeo-and- Juliet lovers literally caught in the crossfire. In the third act trio “Qual voluttà trascorrere” we encounter the three leading characters near a grotto by the River Jordan. Oronte, the tenor- hero of the opera, has been wounded, and is making his melodious way into the next world. An old hermit blesses him with the waters of the Jordan as his girlfriend Giselda weeps at being left behind to mourn him. But the Hermit insists that now that their union has been anointed by Holy Water and Oronte has become a full-fledged Christian, the Almighty has finally blessed their marriage and they will meet in heaven.

In nineteenth-century opera, this counts as a happy ending. The original scoring has an elaborate violin part during this scene, practically a concertomeant to symbolize God’s benediction. There’s still more to come in Act IV: Oronte gets to sing an aria from his perch in heaven reassuring Giselda that all will be well; and the hermit turns out to be the patricidal brother from Act I.

Though Verdi would go on to explore the human condition with far greater refinement in operas ranging from La traviata to Otello, I Lombardi has the primitive power of a Giotto painting. And “Qual voluttà trascorrere,” imbued with the passionate conviction of a youthful genius, is the perfect place to end our Mediterranean voyage. We began in the peaceful harbor of Barcelona, and after many adventures we finally arrive in Jerusalem, where we gratefully receive God’s blessing!

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

1 Comment

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    I miss New York and getting to hear each NYFOS concert. These notes are a wondrous, tantalizing triptik. Thank you so much for sharing.


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