On February 21 at Merkin Concert Hall, the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), imaginatively guided by Artistic Director Steven Blier and Associate Artistic Director Michael Barrett, presented an intriguing evening billed as “‘A Picnic Cantata’/‘Dinner at Eight,’” which Blier began by announcing, “We are here to celebrate three generations of American composers”—writer and composer Paul Bowles (1910-1999); William Bolcom (born 1938), a fixture of the music scene; and young Gabriel Kahane (born 1981)—showcasing older works and very new ones, some of them concerned with food. Blier and Barrett, at the Steinways, shared pianistic duties and introduced a quintet of accomplished, expressive young singers: sopranos Amy Owens and Chelsea Shephard, mezzo-sopranos Amanda Lynn Bottoms and Naomi Louisa O’Connell, and baritone Jesse Blumberg.
Opening a section called “Appetizers,” with Blier at the keyboard, Bowles and Tennessee Williams’ “Heavenly Grass,” from “Blue Mountain Ballads,” sung by O’Connell, proved an ethereal piece, given a dulcet performance. Bolcom’s “Night Practice,” to May Swensen’s poetry, from “I Will Breathe a Mountain,” was treated to Bottoms’ dramatic rendition, sung in a lush tone. Blier desribed the poem, arranged on the page in shape of a mountain and referring repeatedly to mountains and valleys, as “a mantra.” Kahane’s seriously whimsical—or whimsically serious—“Half a Box of Condoms,” from “Craigslistlieder,” was given a novel twist, sung by a woman, lyric soprano Shephard, rather than a man.
For “Breakfast,” we had the world premiere of Kahane’s disturbing “Six Packets of Oatmeal,” to Galway Kinnell’s text, sung by Blumberg—sometimes ascending in head voice, and limning the alienation and unraveling of a loner—and played by Barrett—achieving eerie harmonies, sometimes by reaching inside the piano and plucking the strings. The speaker’s “imaginary companion” for his meal is poet John Keats, sharing secrets about penning “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn.” Poets Edmund Spenser, John Milton, William Wordsworth, and Patrick Kavanagh’s names are dropped along the way. There were eloquent silences, too, as Blumberg’s character fixed us with his stare.
For “Dinner,” we enjoyed a preview of Bolcom and Mark Campbell’s new opera, after George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber Depression-era play, “Dinner at Eight,” slated for a premiere in March at Minnesota Opera. Blier and Barrett played and the five singers sang the selections. Shephard, as Millicent Jordan, contemplated the fare for her imminent dinner party and issued telephoned invitations—to desirable guests, as well as to those she was obliged to ask—and, inspired, arrived triumphantly at a pièce de resistance—“Lobster in Aspic”—to which she offered a sweeping ode. Bottoms, as the star-going-broke Carlotta Vance, and Blumberg, as Oliver Jordan, joined voices for a breezy lament, “Our Town (Where has it gone?),” which Blumberg followed with his bitter plaint, “You Think You’re Safe,” about the descent of his fortune. Owens, disclosing an appealing high lyric soprano, was Paula, the Jordans’ daughter, having a torrid affair with a faded movie star, who is not the man she’s engaged to, and optimistically musing, “My Love Will See Us Through.” When O’Connell, as Lucy Talbot, began “Don’t,” reproving her husband for his many affairs, it seemed redolent of “Leave You,” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” but Lucy T was more willing to compromise, to stay to make the marriage work. Finally, Millicent assessed the many disasters that had befallen her soirée, but happily everyone agreed, “The Party Goes On.”
For “Lunch,” Blier and Barrett, at the pianos, revived Bowles and James Schuyler’s light-hearted “A Picnic Cantata,” which figured into a couple of NYFOS’ early seasons, and for which the four women eschewed diva gown and dressed instead for a casual, sunny Sunday outing. Barry Centanni assisted on percussion. In “I feel funny today,” they merrily planned their picnic, which would include, oddly, “a T-bone fish,/Milady’s Blintzes with white wine sauce/and … Child’s creamoginized/chocolates.” “In our search for order” started with contemplative quasi-liturgical strains, à la Francis Poulenc, and grew more upbeat as the women listed components of the feast that they brought along: “Fried chicken and champagne./Maple syrup and wheats.” “In sun and shade” had a rollicking, sort of Western beginning, turned quiet and buoyant as the women sang of kites, and included a rhapsodic ode to the pies they would have for dessert. They turned to the newspaper to read, cheerfully, spring horoscopes, in “Happy birthday Taurus;” a wrenching letter to the advice columnist, in “The Sunday paper is full of news;” and “I never miss the garden section,” which chugged along with an exotic Eastern sound. “How quick we came from where we were” was the bouncy summing up, which paused for a gentle nocturne, “Is the evening star/Venus or Mars?,” before resuming its joyous tone, as the women bade farewell to each other.
NYFOS visits “Four Islands,” featuring NYFOS Emerging Artists, on March 14 at 8 p.m. at Merkin, 129 West 67th Street. Go to www.nyfos.org
for more information.