Program Note — Perennials: Songs for every season

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published September 26, 2023

After working with Peter Dugan on last year’s opening night concert, Heroes, I was eager to collaborate with him again. But on what, exactly? We met for lunch and batted ideas around for a while. As we got to the last pieces of sushi, Peter asked, “Tell me, is there some program you’ve been thinking about for a while but never done?

After 35 years of NYFOS shows, I was no longer nursing the kind of wish lists I had back in 1988 when it all began. But there was one idea I had been turning over in my mind for a few decades: the portrait of a year, told through song. This arose from what must be a common experience: a feeling of anxiety as the summer ends and the fall season begins. It’s a fear that dates back to my youth, when three months of summer vacation punted me back into the demands of school, homework, and the constant need to be on time. I’ve never lost the feeling that the Tuesday after Labor Day is the beginning of a nine-month wind tunnel.

But could this feeling turn into a song program? Peter was immediately enthusiastic. Out came the computers, the playlists, the scanning of library shelves as song ideas started tumbling out. Suddenly there was too much, and we needed an organizing structure, a programmatic foundation garment to give the repertoire that perfect hourglass figure. “Wait, what if each season spoke its own language?” I asked. Bingo. Our song-calendar, which had been a pudgy jumble for several weeks, fell into place in ten minutes.

Perennials offered a hidden benefit: a chance to invite two beautiful singers to make mainstage debuts (Clay Thompson and Samuel Kidd), and to welcome back a couple of artists I cherish (Raquel González and Lucia Bradford). I never feel that a normal NYFOS season has enough casting slots to engage all the singers and pianists I want to keep close to me. But Perennials would at least have room for four of them, each to be featured in their most congenial rep.

There was never a moment’s doubt about which season went with which language. The burnt orange of autumn was clearly French (“Dans la forêt de septembre”); the icy blast of winter (Winternacht”) and the Christmas season (“Schlafendes Jesuskind”) were German. The earth would be reborn in Spanish (“Por mayo era, por mayo”); and the languor of summer belonged to the USA (“Up on the Roof”). 

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) is my official favorite composer, so it is a special pleasure to dig into his music. He originally wrote the music for our overture, “Berceuse” from the Dolly Suite, when he was just nineteen years old. It was a birthday gift for the daughter of a family friend. 29 years later he made some revisions and gave it once more as a gift to a child, this time to the daughter of his longtime mistress, the singer Emma Bardac. The child was known as Dolly, the dedicatee of the suite of six piano duets Fauré composed in her honor.

The overt drama of “Automne”—slashing piano octaves, an operatic high note at the climax, a percussive postlude—is a rarity among Fauré’s songs. A young man cries out as the season changes, filled with regret and—even at age 20—a sense of lost opportunities. In “Dans la forêt de septembre,” one of Fauré’s masterpieces, a more mature person greets the first falling leaf in autumn with a complex mix of resignation and acceptance. With his special gift for using modal church harmony, Fauré creates a unique kind of sensuality, balancing sorrow and acceptance. The constantly shifting modulations, like the dappling of shadows in a forest, evoke a deep harmony with the arc of life, as well as the sadness of its passing.

The saturated Vuilliard colors of Fauré’s music are the perfect soundscape for autumnal philosophy and melancholy. But the fall season isn’t only about endings; it also offers the prospect of new romance, and for that we offer the luminous Bonnard-tinted world of Debussy (1862-1918). His song “Les ingénus,” composed to a poem by Paul Verlaine, has a sonority unlike anything else in the repertoire—shimmering, evanescent, skittish. It is a perfect evocation of a flirtation during “an ambiguous autumn evening” in an era when the flash of an ankle was enough to send a young man into heat.

In search of a French song about the harvest, Peter typed the world “moisson” (the French word for harvest) into his browser, and voilà, up popped a recording of Yves Montand spinning out exactly the song we needed, the charming valse musette called, appropriately enough, “Moisson” by Louis Ferrari (1910-1987) and René Rouzaud (1905-1976). Montand sang his songs in very low keys. I love to sing along with him until about 11:30 AM, after which time my low notes disappear. But basso Clay Thompson sails into this profound tessitura like a champ—another reason to adore this ear-worm.

“Herbstlied” by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) ushers in the change of season. This turbulent duet is typically sung by two women, but it responds well to the extra weight and drama of male voices. Karl Klingemann’s poem talks of losing faith in love as the weather grows colder. But the next two pieces, both by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), make a case for the beauty of winter, the assault of cold night air as a prelude to the warmth of a home filled with love. “Winternacht” uses fairly straightforward musical gestures to paint the rough weather, which yield to the springtime of love awaiting the narrator at the end of his journey. “Winterweihe” goes deeper, a portrait of an intimate relationship expressed through constantly modulating harmonies and moments of spellbinding stillness, the journey of two souls in communion.

Christmas arrives only four days after winter begins, yet for many it is the signal event of the entire season—Valentine’s Day is a distant runner-up. Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) captured the rapturous serenity of the holiday in his masterpiece “Schlafendes Jesuskind,” composed to a poem by Eduard Möricke. Bending to his family’s wishes, Mörike started out as a Lutheran pastor, but he knew it was not his true calling: “I simply cannot preach, even if you strapped me to the rack,” he wrote. Yet few poets have written more beautifully or more sincerely about religious faith.

Möricke subtitled his poem, “inspired by a painting by Francesco Albani.” This often-copied image shows the Christ Child asleep on the plank of wood which will eventually become the Holy Cross. Unlike many other baroque painters, Albani had a light touch, favoring sweetness and intimacy over grandeur and chiaroscuro. Wolf’s exquisite music evokes the rapt aura of this painting, with piano writing that has the wide-open spacing of a chorale—and just one stabbing dissonance on the word “Schmerzen” (pain).

In “Zum neuen Jahr” Wolf celebrates the new year with a counterpoint of church bells in the upper register of the piano, evoking the optimistic feeling of a new beginning. The song descends into the warmer middle register of the instrument as the poet gives tribute to God the Creator, before returning to the celebratory chimes of the beginning.

Astor Piazzolla’s “Primavera porteña”—“Springtime in Buenos Aires”—is like one of those proverbial March winds that herald the arrival of a sweeter season without quite relinquishing the sting of winter. Peter and I made a beeline for Pablo Ziegler’s duo-piano arrangement of this tango—we’ll take any opportunity to play Piazzolla’s music. Blending Bach’s counterpoint, Ginastera’s edgy machismo, and Bartok’s earthiness with a few jiggers of Fernet, Piazzolla (1921-1992) created a bracing new sound in Argentinean music—nuevo tango—launching one of the greatest artistic careers of the twentieth century.

While Piazzolla was not known for his sweetness; it was one of Juan Lamote de Grignon’s primary qualities. I discovered this gentle Catalan composer at a music store in Barcelona, where he was better represented than some of his more famous colleagues. Lamote de Grignon (1872-1949) indeed had a special gift for melody and harmony—play almost any one of his pieces and you feel your heart melt. What he lacked was range: his songs tend to be similar in structure, gravitating to the same musical strategies over and over again. But when sampled in small doses like saffron, his musical world is captivating, enhanced by the love poetry of his Catalan compatriot, Apel.les Mestre.

Anyone who has attended a few NYFOS concerts in the last 35 years won’t be surprised to see the name Eduardo Toldrà (1895-1962) on tonight’s playlist. He is one of my passions, a petit maître capable of spinning musical gold. Lacking a cornerstone orchestral work, he never became as famous outside of Spain as Granados or Albéniz. Yet he remains one of Barcelona’s spokespeople, a composer of tremendous charm and a superb songwriter. 

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) did write such a cornerstone work: the ubiquitous Concierto de Aranjuez, recorded by every classical guitarist from A (Ángel Romero) to Z (Zoran Dukic). Rodrigo came to prominence in the early 1940s, the turbulent aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. His compositions, propelled by traditional Iberian flourishes, came to represent the gold standard of mid-century music in his county. For a nation of embattled, isolated people, his Fantasía para un gentihombre and his Concerto andaluz served as a balm. Rodrigo was also drawn to the sounds of folk music, accompanied by the open fourths and fifths of guitars—as you’ll hear in his haunting “Romancillo.

Jesus Guridi (1886-1961) celebrates the end of spring with a romantic hymn to St. John’s Eve—yes, I know, it takes place on June 23, technically the beginning of summer; but for me summer doesn’t really begin until July 4. Like Toldrà, Guridi has been relegated to the shadows. Though he spent the second half of his life in Madrid, he always remained close to his Basque roots. His son Ignacio wrote, “My father was an upright Basque, filled with the spirit and vitality of his people…capturing the sounds of a flowing river, the majesty of a mountain, the rustling of trees, or of a wandering txistu flute.

Rodrigo’s musical language drew on the immediately recognizable Arabic cadences of Andalucia, a sound that most of us identify as “typically Spanish.” Guridi was less fortunate. He was drawing on a different tradition, more overtly romantic and filled with the strains of Basque folk music. In addition, some of his vocal works were written in Basque, a challenge for international vocalists at best, and an even bigger liability during the regime of Generalísimo Francisco Franco, who was doing his best to obliterate Basque culture. In the post-Franco years, Guridi’s lush musical vocabulary sounded a bit old-fashioned to modern ears. But I am a fan, and the voluptuous “Mañanita de San Juan” is the perfect introduction to this neglected composer. 

“Mares y arenas”—“Sea and sand”—by Rosendo Ruiz (1895-1983) took Cuba by storm in 1911. If you’re expecting a hot rumba, think again. Cuban music stemmed from both Spanish and West African influences; the close harmony and sinuous melody of this tune, as well as its gentle barcarolle lilt, have a distinctly European flavor. But decades later, Cuban dance bands got their hands on it, changed the time signature, added percussion, and turned up the heat. We’ll give it to you both ways tonight—the sedate springtime version (the original) and the summer “halter-top” arrangement (the 50s update).

Peter and I agreed that our summer soundtrack should be a collection of American songs. They were the only way to express the warmth and the freedom of the season that we begin to long for at 12 a.m. on September 22, the minute fall kicks in. Peter lobbied for “Summer’s Here,” while I insisted on “Up on the Roof” (a song that has obsessed me for the past few months).

As for the composers: it’s unlikely that James Taylor, (b. 1948) Carole King (b. 1942), Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021), or Stevie Wonder (b. 1950) require thumbnail bios for a contemporary audience. But the Sondheim and Stevie Wonder numbers could use a quick footnote. “The Girls of Summer” was the title tune for a 1956 play by S. Richard Nash, for which Sondheim composed a suite of incidental music. Originally just an offstage trumpet solo in the show, Sondheim wrote a lyric for the melody, inspired by the voice and persona of Lena Horne. In 1950, Sondheim had taken composition lessons with the 12-tone composer Milton Babbitt, and I can’t help thinking that the thorny harmonies of “The Girls of Summer” owe as much to that Modernist monstre sacré as they do to blues master Harold Arlen, his other role-model for the tune.

“Summer Soft” was on Peter’s list. It comes from Stevie Wonder’s Grammy-winning album Songs in the Key of Life. I must have been obsessed with sides 1, 3, and 4 of this magnificent double-album when I bought it in 1976, since I wasn’t familiar with any of the tunes on Side 2 where this song is found. When I played it in August, I was bowled over on contact—how could I have gone all this time without knowing “Summer Soft”? The torrent of impressionistic harmony and the soaring melody made me feel as if I were gorging on a tub of stracciatella gelato. The lyrics evoke another Stevie Wonder hit—“Joy Inside My Tears,” evoking both elation and uncertainty as they conjure up the passage of the seasons. Yet in Stevie Wonder’s hands, all the bewilderment, all the conflicting emotions meld into something resembling ecstasy.

The coming months will no doubt also be filled with bewilderment and conflicting emotions. But as Peter and I programmed our preview of the year to come, we were reminded that every season has its own unique joys, that music is always there to see us through, and that love is the most beautiful perennial, available all year long.


Perennials: Songs for Every Season will be performed on Thursday, September 28, 8pm at Merkin Hall. Tickets and program info

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.


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