Program Notes: All Together Now

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published February 18, 2024

Most people assume that all performers want to hog the spotlight, and that singers in particular care about nothing but their solo moments. After all, what other musicians warm up by braying, “me, me, me, ME, me, me, me” at the top of their lungs? Yet what we have discovered at NYFOS is that the most pleasurable moments on both sides of the footlights have often been the ensemble numbers when our casts get to sing gently and make music together. Some vocalists who are trained to project their voices over an orchestra, to portray operatic characters in life-and-death situations, or to lay their souls bare in an art song have also shown themselves to be susceptible to the joys of vocal chamber music, where the art of listening takes equal place with the art of singing. Once, during a NYFOS rehearsal of an a cappella quartet, one of the singers said, “This is so much fun. We should do a whole evening just of ensemble numbers.” From his voice to your ear: we assemble tonight to regale you with an evening of multi-voice numbers from the last five hundred years of Western music. Our five singers, dazzling soloists in their own right, form a kind of camerata, combining and recombining in duets, trios, quartets, and quintets.

The ensemble is the result of a perfect storm: four of the artists have been students of mine at Juilliard, the other two are valued colleagues from recent projects, and all of them won the Young Concert Artists competition in the past three seasons. With so much talent under one roof, it seemed the ideal moment for NYFOS and YCA to come together and present a collaborative project for the first time. I’ve always been indebted to YCA; though I never was on their roster, I played dozens of recitals for two of their winners, William Sharp (1984) and Christopher Trakas (1985). For four golden years I schlepped around the country giving concerts from Bozeman to Boston, and in the process I figured out a thing or two about programming. The result, of course, was the founding of NYFOS in 1988. It was high time to join forces again with YCA, though I myself am no longer a young or even middle-aged concert artist.

The program ends with a duet composed just last year, and begins with a piece from the Renaissance by Clément Janequin (1485-1558). These days Janequin is not a familiar name outside of early-music circles, but in his time he was something of a star. The popularity of his chansons and programmatic pieces earned him first the title of chantre ordinare du roi, and later (a step up) compositeur ordinaire du roi. He managed to achieve these exalted honors without ever holding a major position in either the court or the church—an unusual route for a composer in sixteenth-century France. Onomatopoeia—bird songs, battle cries—form the musical motifs of his songs, which are powered by rhythmic verve and a carefully crafted feeling of spontaneity. You don’t look to Janequin for tender melancholy or melting tunes. His strengths are his quirky sense of humor, his overlapping musical fragments, his unpredictable meters, and his unique blend of elegance and street smarts. I love the Robert Altman ambience of “Les cris de Paris,” where a quartet of raucous voices selling their wares coalesce into a five-minute cantata.

The Mozart trios, taken from a group of six Notturni, were probably written for friends and intended for home performance. The composer didn’t have far to look for his texts, gravitating to verses by the Italian poet Pietro Metastasio (the pseudonym of Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi). He was a veritable libretto factory, the source of some 800 operas in the eighteenth century as well as the lyricist for countless songs, including Lieder by Schubert and Beethoven. Handel had gotten his hands on “Mi lagnerò tacendo” some years before Mozart; later on, Rossini set the well-worn poem some 50 times, including a loopy version in 5/4 time. Mozart, of course, opts for pure lyricism in a short piece reminiscent of his opera Così fan tutte.

Schubert composed his “Ständchen” as a musical gift for a voice teacher friend, who asked him to write something her students could sing. The composer obliged with this setting of a Grillparzer serenade, scored for male quartet and alto soloist. He forgot that she mostly taught women, and had been expecting something for female voices. No problem: he rescored it for two sopranos and two altos, left the solo part as it was, and published both versions. The few performances I have heard of “Ständchen” have used five female singers, but tonight we try yet another variant: mostly female chorus backing up a baritone soloist. Mostly female? Yes, our tenor is grabbing the second alto part.

Money, not friendship, might have been the motivation for Beethoven to compose settings of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folk songs between 1809 and 1818. They were part of an ongoing project begun in 1790 by the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson, who wanted to honor the melodies of his homeland with elegant arrangements. Haydn and Weber had already been among the composers to realize Thomson’s dream, which also included replacing some of the lackluster, rough-hewn lyrics with poetry of a higher caliber. For the Scottish songs, he invited Robert Burns to write lyrics. The poet was so enthusiastic about the project that he refused payment, writing to Thomson, “In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, etc. could be downright Sodomy of Soul!”

Beethoven had no such scruples about accepting money for his arrangements, many of which he created without having access to the new lyrics written for them by the Liverpool-born poet and scholar William Smyth. Biographers are prone to dismissing the Beethoven’s 128 published British songs as toss-offs written during a fallow period, but what they lack in modal authenticity they make up for in wit and charm. The piano writing is deft, the melodies irresistible, and the variety impressive—a respite from the titanic Missa Solemnis and Hammerklavier Sonata.

Brahms was 27 when he composed “Die Meere,” drawing on a German translation of an Italian folk poem. No doubt the lyric’s southern roots inspired the duet’s barcarolle rhythm. It concludes his Opus 20, three duets he began in the summer of 1858 when he was in a serious relationship with a young woman named Agathe von Siebold. As they exchanged rings and began to discuss marriage, Brahms wrote the first two songs, both entitled “Weg der Liebe,” “the path of love,” here portrayed as an unstoppable force for good. But the composer abruptly broke off the relationship, and the two never saw one another again. When he returned to opus 20, he finished it with the rueful “Die Meere,” where the pain of love now takes center stage.

Gabriel Fauré’s “Pleurs d’or” also emerged from a love affair: the composer’s mistress, Emma Bardac, enthusiastically showed him “Soir,” a poem by the Symbolist writer Albert Samain. His swooning, perfumed verses meshed with the ecstatic romanticism of Fauré’s mid-career style, inspiring four of Fauré’s most beautiful songs, among them “Pleurs d’or.” They remind me of pre-Raphaelite paintings, simultaneously opulent and chiseled, chaste and sensuous.

At the age of 26, Camille Saint-Saëns became one of Fauré’s professors, and the two musicians remained close to one another throughout their lives. In his later years Saint-Saëns practically adopted the younger composer’s family. “Pastorale” pre-dates their association by six years—Saint-Saëns tossed it off when he was 20. From an early age he was a master of glittering surfaces and pastiche rather than self-revelatory depth. When I hear this balletic duet I am reminded of the astonishing after-hours pas de deux Saint-Saëns danced (in drag) with Pyotr Tchaikovsky on the stage of the Bolshoi theater. Witnessed only by the pianist Nicolai Rubinstein, it nevertheless has become the stuff of legends. In ordinary life Saint-Saëns may not have been a man notable for his grace. But his music sparkles. And apparently he danced an unforgettable Galathea.

The music—the very ethos—of Russian giant Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) is 180 degrees away from the immaculate surfaces of Camille Saint-Saëns. He had long been fascinated by the folk music of other countries, and in particular the cadences of Jewish music. In 1948, he came across a book entitled Jewish Folk Songs; entranced by their texts, he wrote his Opus 79 song cycle, scored for three voices and piano. Because of Russia’s stringent, institutional anti-Semitism, these songs could only be performed privately for many years, and only for audiences of friends and colleagues guaranteed to be discreet. Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign was at its height in those years, and the composer realized that his music would not only be banned from public performance, but also perceived as a political affront to the reigning powers. His fears were well grounded: the two editors of Jewish Folk Song, Dobrushkin and Yuditsky, were arrested just after Shostakovich premiered his Songs from Jewish Folk Poetry at his home. A number of other notable Jewish intellectuals were rounded up around the same time. In spite of the political dangers, Shostakovich’s new song cycle became widely known and celebrated in musical circles, and received a number of clandestine private performances. The cycle’s underground fame provoked a campaign against the composer, complete with damaging anonymous letters. Shostakovich eventually was able to gain permission for a public premiere in 1955, seven years after the songs were written.

The initial eight songs center on the hardships of life; a few months later composer added three more that defiantly portray joy and satisfaction in the Jewish community. As always, Shostakovich’s motivation was equivocal: was it to hide the terror of Jewish life in Russia and help gain acceptance for the work, or to celebrate their resilience in spite of persecution? Whatever his reasons, the cycle was finally published, using a Russian translation. For years it was commonly sung in a very inaccurate, expurgated German version. But the composer’s son, Maxim, stated that his father truly wished for the songs to be performed in the original Yiddish, which match the musical settings perfectly and provide the authentic atmosphere. The original lyrics also bring out the fragments of Jewish folk tunes and liturgical music that permeate the cycle. And what other language has a word like “oy” to express joy, relief, excitement, and regret in just one syllable?

Our program includes not one but two a cappella works by contemporary composers with close ties to the Twin Cities: the prolific and influential Libby Larsen, born in Delaware but a resident of Minneapolis since the age of 3, and Matt Boehler, a Minneapolis native now living in San Francisco. Larsen’s exuberant Jack’s Valentine, dates from 2001, and was first performed by a women’s choir. (Luckily for us, the second alto part sits low enough to be sung by a lyric tenor.) Larsen explained, “It is the brash inside echo of what so many of us stumble to put into words in the outside world. The ‘Jack’ referred to in the title of this brief, no-holds-barred love song is American beat poet Jack Kerouac. Kerouac’s style of poetry, sprung full-blown from post-WWII American language, is hip, rhythmic, and directly to the point. Aldeen Humphreys’s poem is a tribute to Jack Kerouac and a little packet of courage for shy lovers.”

NYFOS audiences will have fond memories of Matt Boehler, who appeared with us in the double-bill premiere of John Musto’s Bastianello and William Bolcom’s Lucrezia in 2008. He later became an indispensable part of both Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life, and Lyrics By Shakespeare with Naomi O’Connell and Kathleen Chalfant. Busy as he was as a singer, Matt always maintained a side-gig as a composer, and after several years singing principal bass roles in St. Gallen, Switzerland, he returned to the States to study at the San Francisco Conservatory. There his principal teacher was David Conte. Matt is still busy on the opera stage, but he now also enjoys a burgeoning career as a composer.

Last summer he contacted me when he saw that All Together Now was on the docket: “I have two lovely singer colleagues here in San Francisco, two sopranos. They recently made a recital tour in Alaska and decided their only accompaniment would be what instruments they could carry themselves…so I wrote them an unaccompanied madrigal to send them off. You’ll recognize the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, ‘Let Beauty Awake,’ from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel, but I chose to make a very different musical setting. It’s one of those little somethings that just turned out so nicely thanks to two great artists bringing it to life. I wrote it for two “equal” voices, so it can be transposed to whatever key is best. A friend said, ‘it sounds like Hildegaard von Bingen has found her home on the range…!,’ and that seems about right.” I instantly warmed to the piece, and am thrilled to add Matt Boehler to NYFOS’s roster of composers.

Pretty much everyone in my generation slow-danced to the 1963 Beach Boys hit “In My Room.” The song is the handiwork of Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, and it finds the team at their peak. The pair collaborated on the lyrics, but the melody was entirely the handiwork of Wilson. The song always had a special meaning to him. When he was a boy, he shared a room with his brothers Dennis and Carl. To help get to sleep at night, he taught them the 1956 pop hit “Ivory Tower,” and soon the three boys sang it in harmony as a nightly ritual. When it came time to record “In My Room,” Dennis, Carl, and Brian were the featured vocalists, and their harmonizing evoked that precious moment from their childhood.

The lyrics of “In My Room” may be a little ungrammatical—the first few lines would certainly get a blue pencil from any editor over the age of 30—but the long, sinuous melody instantly conjures up the inner sanctum only a bedroom can provide. Wilson’s father and mother loved this song the first time they heard it. Wilson sang it to them the moment it was finished, late at night, just before they retreated to the privacy of their own bedroom.  After all, teenagers aren’t the only ones who need a cocoon.

The Bobs are a kickass a cappella doo-wop group originally based in San Francisco. Their golden era was in the 1980s and early 1990s, when they received a Grammy nomination for their cover version of “Psycho Killer.” Now located in Seattle, they remain active, though their songs have lost some of the confrontational edge that once made them compulsory listening. The Bobs raised quirkiness to the level of high art, their exploration of the fringier elements of American society was spot-on, and their musicianship (incorporating everything from medieval chant to doo-wop) was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Gunnar Madsen and Richard Green were the “Bobs” responsible for writing “Trash,” an instant classic.

Tonight’s songs deal with everything from love and betrayal to commerce and hygiene—the wide range of challenges we face in the modern world. Their message is not contained only in the words and music, but in the nature of the music-making itself. When we hear people sing together, we spontaneously feel that the world will have a chance to heal itself. Even when the subject matter is disquieting., voices in harmony provide a deep sense of comfort. Our cast tonight has joined together for a few precious days of togetherness, before returning to the peripatetic tumult of their singing careers. We treasure this moment, just as we treasure our listeners. Blessings on all.

I owe a debt of gratitude to three people who helped bring this program to life. It was Rebecca Jo Loeb who originally came up with the idea of gathering the Young Concert Artist singers together for a NYFOS concert. She also helped in the initial stages of programming. Her assistance was invaluable. Joshua Breitzer served as our mentor for the Yiddish poetry, contributing his time and expertise with rare generosity. And a shout-out to Daniel McGrew, who sent a two-page list of repertoire ideas, some of which made it onto the program.


All Together Now will be performed at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center on Wednesday, February 21, 8PM and live-streamed to online audiences at no charge. Tickets available here and livestream here.

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 has contributed many Song of the Day entries.

1 Comment

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    Congratulations on the excellent program offered last night–“All Together Now” There was not a weak link among the singers or the entire program! It’s great to hear literature we’ve never heard–and performed by such engaging singers. Each was a marvel!!
    We are friends of Matt Boehler and have him to thank for alerting us to the program last night. I passed the link on to several others in town.
    Keep up the endlessly inventive programs, and presenting such delightful singers!


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