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NYFOS Offers “Warsaw Serenade”


Soprano Dina Kuznetsova (Dario Acostaw photo)
Soprano Dina Kuznetsova (Dario Acostaw photo)

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.

Joseph Kaiser (file photo)
Joseph Kaiser (file photo)

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?

The reviewer apologizes for lack of Polish diacritical marks. Just getting all the consonants in the right place at the right time is challenge enough. If there are pronunciation dilemmas, put them in the comment section and she will try to help you out.

Ed note: This review was edited in response to the comments below.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Hello. This is a very interesting and informative article. However it is historically and morally inaccurate. You state in the article that he has died in polish concentration camp. Just to let you know there were no polish concentration camps during IIWW. They were Nazi Germany camps established against the will of polish people on the territory of occupied Poland. Please be so kind and correct it imminently. Thank you and best regards PAWEL Bachorski

    Comment by Pawel Bachorski — February 18, 2014 at 8:32 am

  2. The use of the term ‘ Polish concentration camp’ is incorrect. The German Nazis established the ‘concentration camps’ on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error so that history is correctly reflected.

    Comment by Jim Przedzienkowski — February 18, 2014 at 8:53 am

  3. Thank you Susan, for your thorough review of what must have been a splendid, enthralling concert. Wish I could have been there.

    I would, however, be very grateful if you would please add a clarifying correction to some of the text in your review. It occurs at the end of the third-to-last paragraph, the exact text being “Polish concentration camp”. Actually, there were no “Polish” concentration camps during World War II; there were only “Nazi German concentration camps in German-occupied Poland”. As Poland was brutally conquered by Nazi Germany in September 1939, the Polish government in exile had no control over what the Nazi’s did there, despite the brave and sometimes successful efforts of the Polish underground resistance fighters to disrupt Nazi operations.

    I am a member of a Facebook Group called Polish Media Issues (PMI), and we diligently seek to clarify and correct any media items that we find that fail, even slightly, to fully attribute the horrific Nazi atrocities to them.

    I would therefore be very grateful if you would please substitute the fuller description of these camps into your otherwise immaculate review.

    Kind Regards, Dan Zamoyski

    Comment by Dan Zamoyski — February 18, 2014 at 9:32 am

  4. Dear Dan, Pawel, and Jim,

    I quote from the program notes. “The rest of his family perished in Poland after they were put into the Trawniki concentration camp.”
    You are correct that it was a German/Nazi camp on Polish soil. I sincerely apologize that my wording had been unnecessarily careless. I will see that my wording is corrected. Please accept my apologies.


    Comment by Susan Miron — February 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm

  5. Susan,

    Could you please add that the concentration camp was a German Nazi camp just to clarify absolutely it was not Polish. Thanks, Jim

    Comment by Jim Przedzienkowski — February 18, 2014 at 1:25 pm

  6. There will not be any more clarifications.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 18, 2014 at 3:58 pm

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