Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

[An American Liebeslieder
Reinventing the Liebeslieder
AUFBAU 62:12 June 7, 1996 p16
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
May 18, 1996

479 words

What a marvelous idea. Get a group of four singers together to sing the gorgeous Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer with piano four-hand accompaniment, and then commission a group of composers to come up with a second act! But then how do you decide which composers to commission? Do you go for homogeneity, talent, or diversity? And what happens if the works don't quite fit together or if the singers don't like them? What do you do?

Michael Barrett and Steven Blier of the New York Festival of Song ran into just these problems when they commissioned ten composers ranging in age from 21 to 72, including two women, at least two gays, at least one Jew, two Italian-Americans and one Asian (no Africans). Were these the best to be had at the price? And why didn't they all write for the full vocal quartet?

Of the ten only five: John Corigliano and Ned Rorem (whose works opened and closed the set), James Sellars ("Kissing Songs"), Davide Zannoni (whose "Blind Date with alter Egos" was really a miniopera) and John Musto (whose pianistically fine-filigreed "Calypso" tango elicited the biggest cheers from the audience) employed all four of the singers: soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, mezzo Stephanie Blythe, tenor Steven Tharp, and bass-baritone Philip Cutler. All are fine singers well worth hearing alone or in ensembles. Ms. Lundy's tendency to melt into a barely audible pianissimo served her well in Bright Sheng's erotic setting of e.e. cummings' "may i feel said she" (another miniopera); unfortunately Ms. Blythe, who may be the next Kirsten Flagstad, was unable to come down to her dynamic and often covered her in duets, especially Dalit Hadass Warshaw's "Rose of Sharon," one of the most interesting pieces on the program and the only one to combine Hebrew with English. In an exclusive interview afterwards, Ms. Warshaw, who is only 21 but (frighteningly) has already been performed by 27 orchestras, explained why her piece was the only one accompanied by just one pianist: it had been substituted barely ten days earlier when her originally-offered setting of a Dorothy Parker poem had been rejected because the singers didn't like having to speak some of the lines, as the composer had specified.

The other compositions included Jeffrey Stock's homoerotic Whitman setting for male duet, "We Two Boys Together Clinging," Jane Komarov's soprano-bass duet after Christina Rossetti's "I Wish I Could Remember that First Day," and Richard Danielpour's romantic setting of Toni Morrison's "I Am Not Prey" for alto solo (re-arranged from a version with three instruments). The Brahms Liebeslieder in the first half were prefaced by four Schumann duets in various combinations, and followed (without applause in between) by a coda, Brahms' "Zum Schluss" on a poem by Goethe. A beautiful evening with many charms, even if rockily arrived at and presented.

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