Having enjoyed two programs presented by the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) (see my BMInt review here), I feel confident recommending their concerts whenever they come to Boston (usually the Gardner Museum). Artistic Director Steven Blier puts together well-researched theme programs (the last one was Ned (Rorem) at 90) that feature extraordinarily good singers. Blier, who for this program played many two-piano accompaniments with Michael Barrett (his friend and Associate Artistic Director of NYFOS), is a terrific raconteur and writer of program notes. Thanks to his running commentary, his audiences leave knowing a great deal more than they did at the concert’s beginning. Blier’s accompanying resumé reads like a Who’s Who of Operatic Sopranos and Mezzos. He plays just beautifully, as does Barrett, a protégé of Leonard Bernstein.
A student of 20th-century Polish literature, I was intrigued by this concert’s theme, “Warsaw Serenade.” With the exception of Karol Szymanowski, and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, most of the composers were rather unknown, but all received the careful attention and love with which Blier treats his composers (and singers). Founded by Blier and Barrett in 1988, NYFOS aims “to weave music, poetry, history, and humor into unforgettable evenings of compelling theater.” They did that in spades on Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum.
Sunday’s extraordinary singers were the American tenor Joseph Kaiser and the Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova, who last performed here in “Dvořák and the American Soul (reviewed by Cashman Kerr Prince here). Blier remarked he used an international team of translators for this program, which was mostly in Polish, with other songs in German and Yiddish. From what I know of Polish, the singers’ impressive Polish pronunciation was impeccable. The two had their repertoire divided up equally, and would be featured every other song, which gave them a chance to catch their breath, but gave me a little vertigo. I would just be getting comfortable (or deeply impressed) with one when the other would begin, changing the mood radically. And their approaches to the songs were quite different. Kaiser has an impressive stentorian voice. Kuznetsova was given the lion’s share of tragic laments, and she was stunning. One could understand both with big futures as major opera singers.
Blier writes that the idea for this program had its roots in NYFOS’s 2001 concert, “Beyond the Iron Curtain.” He had originally intended it to feature the music of Dvořák, but that was before he was swept off his feet by the “overpowering color and passion of Karol Szymanowski’s “Song of the Infatuated Muezzin” who seemed to him a musical blood brother. This program, then, is his “hymn to Karol the Great and his compatriots.”
The first two songs contrasted the ecstasy of young love (music by Stanislaw Moniuszko 1819-1872, “Poland’s Schubert”) sung stirringly by Kaiser- a perfect opener- with bereavement in Edward Pallasz’s (b. 1936) “The lament of the mother of mankind,” a wrenching song of Mary, whose singing of “my son,” Synku,” grew sadder with each verse. Kuznetsova embodied grief and pain several times in this program, each time with devastating beauty.
Blier explained that the composer Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) is best known for her instrumental music. “Her personal voice emerged more powerfully in the 1940s and 50s: a light-textured, vigorous, slightly tart brew akin to first-class gourmet vinegar.” (Blier does nicely with food metaphors. Another composer’s music had “more sizzle than steak.”) Bacewicz was one of my favorite discoveries of the afternoon, with 4 songs representing, in Blier’s words, “a wise, cool-tempered woman,” certainly the only monodrama I’ve ever heard sung about a headache that had almost everyone laughing (except, perhaps, those who really had headaches).
Mieczyslaw Karlowicz (1876-1909) wasn’t initially familiar to Blier, or most Americans, but is well-known in Poland. Before dying at the age of 34 in an avalanche, Karlowicz wrote two of the program’s most intriguing songs, his Opus 1, #1, “To the grieving maiden,” another song of despair sung with operatic flair by Kuznetsova.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s (1919-1996) Seven Yiddish Songs has the curious (for the Jews of Poland) composition date is 1943. The texts are by the great Yiddish writer, I. L. Peretz (1852-1915), and were sung in, again, well-pronounced Yiddish by the two singers. In the seventh song, “The Orphan’s Letter,” Kaiser sang angrily of having no tears, “I just lie here shivering, Mama.” It is, in fact, a chilling end to the cycle. Weinberg is apparently being “discovered” these days. “Even his name, spelled variously as Wainberg, Vaynberg, and Wajnberg in reference books, is finally being standardized” to its German spelling. While Weinberg was programmed and admired by many of Russia’s best conductors and instrumentalists, it was Dmitri Shostakovich who was his greatest ally, and who interceded when Weinberg was imprisoned in 1953. But Wienberg had a tough life before this by any measure. A Jew in Poland, he fled in 1939, but all of his family died in a concentration camp in Poland. Weinberg himself fled the Nazis first to Minsk, then Tashkent, then Moscow, where he was arrested in 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death) for that popular excuse of Stalin’s, Jewish bourgeois nationalism.
Blier clearly saved the best for second-to-last. Speaking from the piano- and from the heart- Blier admitted wistfully, “This (Szymanowski) is the music I would have written. He feels very close to me. He knows my hands very well.” He added, “Music should taste good…. This music is close to my own aesthetic.” Four poems turned songs exemplified four musical moments in the composer’s life: the Strauss/Wagner period, the trip to Italy “where he came out big time,” his trip to North Africa, “another gay hot spot,” and his Polish nationalist folk song setting, where “the piano part still has a lot of sex.” Of these, “Neigh , my horse” from The Kurpian Songs is the best known, as it exists in a popular version for violin and piano.
The last scheduled piece was by Paderewski (1860-1941), a setting of “The Piper’s Song” (1893) by the great Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). The encore, however, was total fun, delighting those left depressed by the afternoon’s often tragic lyrics. Here was a reconstruction of “what an Ira Gershwin/ Chopin/ Blier musical would sound like.” The music was Chopin’s famous E Major Étude “Tristesse,” the lyrics Ira Gershwin’s. Blier and Company put on a terrific show. Who knew a program of Polish music for voice and piano could be so engaging?