February 4 marked the opening of the NYFOS Next–A Festival of New Song with David T. Little and Friends. And what friends these are—Colin Read, Kate Soper, Jeff Myers and Ted Hearne—with the finale by the young master himself from his soon-todebut opera “JFK.” This stands as an eclectically wonderful outing and amongst my favorite so far. The series returns to its last-season home, the lovely OPERA America National Opera Center performance space at 29th and 7th in Chelsea.
The evening began with Read’s “Fairytales and Letters” in a New York premiere sung by Justine Aronson, joined by New York Festival of Song Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett on piano. The contrast of the busy-ness of the music and the pure tone of the musings in soprano Aronson’s deliciously poignant voice were like a cocktail party in one piece. The overtones and the alternation of assonance and dissonance in the accompaniment seem to mirror the thoughts that beeline through one’s head–different, same, crazy lancing lightning thoughts, with the one clear electric thread of voice providing the range of a lifetime of experience. Decades in minutes, this piece was the one that Read had submitted for consideration to study in conservatory with Little, who described the piece perfectly as “It’s cool with being itself.”
Next up we had Soper with two excerpts from her 2014 work “Here Be Sirens,” described as serious, deep and funny. The two selections, sung by the composer with sister sopranos Gelsey Bell and Brett Umlauf, began with “Across the Turbid Waves/In a Silent Valley,” whose lyrics are from classical sources–Dante’s “Inferno” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” These three beautiful wiccans stir up “Macbeth”-style sorcery in the cauldron of the sound cavity of the piano each alternating the clack-clacking of stones with derring-do on the sound board, strings, and other internal organs of the piano and making beautifully unearthly sounds within. Then, as they joined forces for “O, Sailor,” which Soper called “a run-of-the-mill Siren song,” the harmonics among the voices blend so beautifully and, at other times, there’s a deliquescent friction that vibrates the eardrums like sheets on a clothesline on a bright sunny day. It’s easy to understand how these Sirens could lure sailors with their seductive songs that could drive them mad, in every sense of the word. There was a collective intake of breath among the audience afterward as we emerged from the ether and all came back to Earth.
Myers’ “Requiem Aeternam,” with text from Tennyson, from the composer’s very recent “Pagtulog na Nene,” was the next gem offered. It was sung by mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti and Myers characterized it as a lullaby in part, but it’s so much more than that. Accompanied by a string quartet consisting of Ayano Ninomiya and Danby Um on violin, Leslie Tomkins on viola, and Alice Yoo’s cello, this was a feast for the senses. The bowing on the violins was initially done with the edge, giving a reedy, folk sound, while Gigliotti’s rich operatic voice and dynamic control gave a caress to the text in Visayan, a Filipino dialect, that alternated so gently with English that the meaning of the words, the emotion, is always clear. The lightly pentatonic scale gives air and space to pathos that otherwise might be almost too heavy to bear, if you thought of the emotion as a mother’s paean to a lost child.
The multiple gifts of singing composers continued with Hearne performing his works, first “Intimacy and Resistance,” with a text from Allison Carter, where the “resistance” is Hearne’s unspoken argument with Carter–do we really accommodate and expect less as we get older or gather more experience? Shouldn’t we rather fight complacency … a compelling contretemps, to be sure. Then “Protection” from a text by Hearne’s friend Meghan Deans, who rendered a story into poetry that he had told, regarding a move of a venue from the perspective of what lies beneath. Joined for both by Barrett on piano, “Protection” also featured some evocative violin playing by Ninomiya.
Soon, the Finale was upon us, featuring the string quartet conducted by Barrett from the piano, with Gigliotti returning to give us the first of two selections from Little’s upcoming opera “JFK.” Librettist Royce Vavrek joined Little onstage to give us insight into the commission they received from Fort Worth Opera and l’Opéra de Montréal that documents the night before that fateful day in Dallas. Gigliotti’s performance of “In Shutter Speed” is Jackie Kennedy’s soliloquy of love over her sleeping husband, as well as her confession that as much as she knows about his carryings-on–and that’s everything–she loves him still. Polished lyric baritone Matthew Worth, who will create the role of John F. Kennedy in the opera’s premiere, opposite mezzo Daniela Mack, in Fort Worth on April 23, joined Gigliotti for “You Look Familiar,” also known as the Moon Duet. Vavrek set this up brilliantly as “their first meeting and their courtship in about seven minutes.” It’s fortunate that the Moon Duet was the final piece of the evening, as the performance was so moving that it would have been a nearly impossible act to follow. This work will be a blockbuster!
On the next two Tuesdays, NYFOS Next will feature, on February 11, An Evening with the Manhattan School of Music curated by faculty members Susan Botti and Richard Danielpour and, on February 18, Lowell Liebermann and his Students. Make early reservations, this intimate space fills up quickly for these events and there’s no other event where you’re *this* close to the movers and shakers in modern music and performance. Visit www.NYFOS.org