The Sons of Liberty Festival is offering a plethora of performances this month, a compensation for those who haven’t fled the city for cooler regions. Of all the various offerings, the one that immediately caught my eye was “A Countertenor Cabaret”: it was the first time I had seen the latter two words adjacent to each other. On Saturday, at the Church On The Hill on Beacon Hill, countertenors Von Bringhurst and Yakov Zamir and pianists Christopher M. Orzech and Ari Frankel presented a captivating program of songs by three living composers. Both singers had flexible, attractive voices with well-demonstrated control over a large range of registers and dynamics, and they complemented each other well. Bringhurst, who also bills himself as sopranist, had a somewhat higher range and brighter timbre; Zamir, “countertenor and tenor,” had a rich, mellow sound. If I may be permitted one invidious comparison, Bringhurst’s sound was akin to a flute’s, Zamir’s to an English horn’s. Orzech and Frankel gave fine support, attentive to texts and singers, and adept at creating a mood both in solo piano passages and in collaboration with the singers.
Von Bringhurst and Orzech began the evening with songs by Scott Wheeler. First came Singing to Sleep, a set of three, setting texts by an anonymous 17th-century poet (Sleep Sleep My Soul), Rainer Maria Rilke as adapted by Randall Jarrell (A Variation on “To Say Go to Sleep”), and W. H. Auden (Lullaby). The first was notable for its seemingly meterless dreamy effect and Bringhurst’s floated high notes. The second, rather impressionist in style, set a scene with Orzech’s skillful evocation of distant bells. The third, of a slightly tangier harmonic language, featured word-painting and several large register shifts in the vocal part—smoothly negotiated by Bringhurst. As a lagniappe, Bringhurst and Orzech gave us a warm rendition of another Wheeler song, I Will Always Be On Your Side. If the previous songs were essentially art songs, this beguiling piece, tuneful and uncomplicated, was nearer to musical theater.
The first of two sets by San Francisco composer JJ Hollingsworth was performed next by Zamir and Orzech. The texts were by the composer—as was true of all the remaining songs on the program. The first, The sweetest love alive, was mesmerizingly beautiful and was capped by Zamir’s long, exquisitely controlled final note. Ribbon of ink was a sly depiction of the power of love to put anyone off balance; how else to explain the lyric: “I dot my p’s and q’s”? I had to wonder if the fifth and final song, Penny candy (not to be confused with the wonderful Marc Blitzstein Depression-era song of the same title), might have been motivated by rumors of the federal government’s decision to discontinue making pennies. The song extols the wisdom of saving coins of even the smallest value (“from pennies there is much to learn on how to get ahead”). Zamir and Orzech gave it a subtle sense of humor.
Ari Frankel was the composer of and pianist for the third set of songs, wiping ceramic tiles, sung by Yakov Zamir. Frankel established the tone of the first song, The Rest, with a long, wistful piano introduction. The voice part’s long-breathed, expressive phrases contrasted tellingly with those of the piano. The Shave was an examination—deadpan, I believe, though neither performer’s face revealed anything—of personal inertia in performing such quotidian chores as shaving, laundry, etc. The much-repeated refrain was: “Be my savior! Shave me!” The final song, The Jew, Etc., derived much of its power from a simple rocking figure in the piano part, but Zamir’s nuanced singing was also moving in this deeply melancholy work. For fuller comprehension I would have liked to hear this set again, not least for its challenging texts which were occasionally hard to hear.
The program ended with another set by Hollingsworth, performed by Bringhurst and Orzech. Not being constrained by singing lullabies this time, the countertenor took the opportunity to be more extroverted and demonstrative. Be Graceful When You Go offered tongue-in-cheek advice on breaking off a relationship in good taste, rather like how to take revenge without incurring Amy Vanderbilt’s disapproval. Bringhurst enjoyed playing something like a combined practical advice/etiquette columnist. Gotta Cat couldn’t fail to please those of us who have cohabited with cats, listing many feline idiosyncrasies: “doesn’t come when called”; “chairman of the yard”; and “plays piano keys” (cue sudden tone clusters on the piano). The spring revery The Lilacs of May had perhaps Hollingsworth’s most inspired text, speaking of sensory reshuffling, e.g., the sound of moonlight on the windowpanes and the scent of the glow of fireflies. Bringhurst and Orzech made it a vivid experience.
If the evening’s songs didn’t exactly fit the classic definition of cabaret, one couldn’t realistically expect a floor show in a small church sanctuary! However, there was some social commentary, even a bit of satire, especially if one was prepared to read between the lines. But in the end, such semantic debates are of little importance. These were accomplished songs by gifted composers, brought to life by fine performers. It is reassuring to think that such people as these will inspire others to go and do likewise, ensuring the continued prosperity of the genre.