Sunday Concert Series at Gardner Museum lured me in with “A Modern Person’s Guide to Hooking Up and Breaking Up,” a program featuring New York Festival of Song, a group I was unfamiliar with until I got the Gardner’s brochure. After Sunday’s remarkable concert, I am a serious fan of both the group and its pianist/director Steven Blier.
Now in its 24th season, New York Festival of Song was the brainchild of Blier and Michael Barrett, who founded it with the idea that “everyone has a primal need to be sung to”; songs are “one of the daily requirements of human beings.” The group has had a changing cast of singers; Sunday’s included Anne-Carolyn Bird, soprano; Liza Forrester, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Garland, baritone; Alex Mansoori, tenor; with Gennard Lombardozzi, tenor, and Adrian Rosas, bass-baritone. All were excellent singers and engaging actors.
This was my third concert in three weeks in the new Gardner Museum’s concert hall. I disliked the acoustics and the space itself during my first visit that featured a vocal quartet. I was still distracted by the design of the hall during my second visit, which featured a pianist. But this ensemble found playing on a square floor inside a cube a challenge that they really liked, and they used the space very cleverly. For once, this hall seemed perfect (although I dislike heights and have not experienced the higher levels).
The concert began in the dark, with a singer/speaker in each of the four corners, each reciting a (very touching and funny) line from e e cummings’s “may i feel said he.” Then the lights went up, and the first group of songs about young love began with the well-known Standing on the Corner by Frank Loesser. Each of the concert’s sections was engagingly introduced from his piano bench by Blier. You’d Be Surprised, words and lyrics by Irving Berlin, and Innocent Ingénue Baby by George Gershwin and William Daly, lyrics by Brian Hooker were two unfamiliar songs by famous composers well worth hearing.
The next section involved Dating (what a great Valentines concert!) with Steven Sondheim’s famous The Girls of Summer delivered by the sultry, sexy, smoking hot Liza Forrester, a great singing actress. We learned from Blier’s program notes that this was Sondheim’s first Broadway outing (1956), and that he set out to write a “Lena Horne song.” He succeeded.
Cole Porter’s You’re a Bad Influence on Me with its sassy rhymes ended this set. As Blier puts it, “There was not way we could leave Cole Porter, the bad boy of American popular song, out of our guide to hooking up and breaking up. His entire oeuvre is devoted to that very subject, and there is no one who can better describe liaisons, from the wholesome to the down-low.” This song exists “in praise of forbidden fruit, the libido activated against its owner’s better judgment.”
From here on, Blier was a tad embarrassed, as three small children had sat in the front row on the floor, and this was decidedly not a family show. He hoped they understood nothing (and probably wished they’d fall asleep). He explained he and the singers (in various combinations) would be examining the underbelly of dating, “all the kinks and indiscretions that were discreetly passed over in the popular songs of my youth when love was a many-splendored thing.” The satirist Tom Lehrer was represented by his “Masochism Tango sung mischievously by Forrester, with its hilariously naughty rhymes, “I ache for the touch of your lips, Dear. But much more for the touch of your whips, Dear. You can raise welts like nobody else…” The music and lyrics for Through the Wall (1983) by The Bobs was, according to Blier’s introduction to this creepy song about voyeurism, about “a man who has made an erotic investment in apartment life.” A back-up quartet of singers chanted syllables, imitated a saxophone that the neighbor’s boyfriend plays horribly, and echoed words for emphasis: “Your boyfriend is really a jerk, jerk jerk jerk.” Andrew Garland was the masterful jealous lover in “He Never Did That Before” from “Songs from an Unmade Bed, about a man who realizes his lover has learned new tricks, from someone new. Where? When? Then who cares? he decides.
From Kinks and Infidelities, this endearing group (and marvelous pianist) moved on to Marriages and Cohabitations, which began with Noel Coward’s Bronxville Darby and Joan. The glamorous Forrester donned a nasty pink bathrobe and red glasses, and Alex Mansoori dressed in a similarly aged and run-down manner. What a great couple, and how they unabashedly sang of their lifetime hatred each other! In Trash (1983), music and lyrics again by the Bobs, the terrific Forrester complained that home, where the heart is, has been ruined by her man’s sloppy habits. “God what a mess! It gives me cardiac arrest…. I’m gonna lace His food with arsenic And have him hauled away.” The whole ensemble sang and danced the final “I’m gonna call my garbage man, Haul my baby And all of his trash away.” Forrester wailed it as if she were a gospel singer. The beautiful song, “When I Fall in Love” from One Minute to Zero was performed beautifully by Andrew Garland and was played with improvisatory élan by Blier. “Marry Me a Little” from Company (1970), music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, featured three couples singing to each other, hoping they were ready for the huge commitment each feared more than a little.
There were quite a few licentious songs, not really appropriate for a family blog, but great fun nevertheless. The performers knew how to put across torch songs as well as naughty numbers. Both the audience and the performers seemed to love this unusual program. For a final Valentine’s Day gift we were given another gem, Tom Lehrer’s, I Got It from Agnes. All the singers stood around the piano, saying a person’s name and from whom he or she got “it.” Blier spent a decade finding songs for this eternal theme, and he did a brilliant job. This was a sexy, often lascivious Valentine, full of attitude, class, wit, and always, first-class music-making.