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Miracle on 37th Street–NYFOS Next Soars
by Sherri Rase     |      Bookmark and Share
photo provided by Sherri Rase
Joseph Thalken
New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) kicked off its second season of the mini-series “Next.” This bi-annual event showcases young composers and their new work, so that vocal aficionados get to know what’s on the event horizon for the glitterati and the literati. On November 8 at 7p.m., “Joseph Thalken and Friends” had the look of a recital in the beautiful Mary Flagler Cary Hall, while having the feel of a fin de siècle musicale in the home of a beloved music-loving friend.
Joseph Thalken and his friends are a powerhouse of young composers, including Sam Davis, whose post-Modern darkness adds a quirky quality to his keen intellect, and Peter Foley, whose earnest archness rounds the scintillating trio. Thalken’s work has come a long way from the dirge he wrote at age six and dedicated to his 4-year old sister who dissolved in tears and gave him, as he put it, “his first lackluster review.” It was also likely his last, as last night’s selections raise the bar considerably.
Mary Flagler Cary Hall, situated in the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, at 450 West 37th Street, is intimate in a way that only concrete and plate glass may be, but you may need to be an urban denizen to feel that. As we descended the stairs, we came to the small receiving area, which had a scattering of chairs and a small table set with red and white wine, and sparkling water, for the delectation of the arriving guests. Once inside, we found a Steinway grand piano, gracing one catty-corner, with two chairs on one side and five on the other, the on-deck circle for composers audience left, singers audience right. Behind the tables was an area of more conventional seating. It was a delight to be able to take a glass of something into the performance area–classical? Cabaret? Something else, decidedly–and NOT stuffy. This is new music after all, and time for refreshing new presentations.
After a very brief introduction, soprano Lauren Worsham began in her burnished silver tone, with “The Thing Itself.” Originally written for a friend’s wedding, Mark Campbell’s lyric and Thalken’s heartfelt setting sing of love’s manifestations, none of which is as thrilling as the thing itself. There was a beautiful choral flourish, featuring the other soloists, soprano Marcy Richardson, tenor Miles Mykkanen and baritone Jonathan Estabrooks, that began the evening and sent ripples of what was to come. Mykkanen and Richardson followed with the dark evocation of “If You Can’t Feel It,” from Thalken’s collaboration with lyricist Tom Jones on the cult film “Harold and Maude”. You might remember Mr. Jones from that wee success of his, “The Fantasticks”. Mr. Jones and many of the glitterati of the vocal scene were in attendance. Toward the front were composer William Bolcom and mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and Steven Blier and Donna Breitzer of NYFOS, as well as many of the lyricists and collaborators who made the evening possible were there to enjoy. No pressure! The soloists were well selected and Mykkanen’s build of inner drama well articulated the inner monologue of a young man listening to his mother answer his online dating questionnaire. The next two selections, “Without Words” and “Stay” were both from “And the Curtain Rises,” a theatrical telling, with Mark Campbell, of the collision of two worlds—a conflicted production of a melodrama and a French ballet company that comes to take refuge in the theatre when theirs burns down. Baritone Estabrooks is the voice of William Wheatley, ca. 1866, as the young theatrical producer marvels at the grace that the rehearsing ballet company brings to telling their story without words. The sense of wonder is palpable, as he contemplates the ballet rehearsal from the wings. Richardson returned to sing, in golden tone, of all the words that have passed between her lover and herself, it all comes down to one. Her bittersweet conjuring of love gone somewhere closed Thalken’s first set.
Next up, Richardson continued with Sam Davis’ “Greenwich Time,” part of a grouping of songs by different composers celebrating life in New York, immediately post-September 11. All around were smiles at Randy Buck’s lyric, conjuring a particularly evocative Sunday summer afternoon, doing the things we’ve all done to while away a perfect day with someone we love. Something perhaps appropriate to the present day, the 1930s flavored “Invested in You” featured Richardson and Estabrooks as a couple glad to have one another, though they presently have little else. Richardson was especially appropriately attired, in a gold charmeuse sheath and platinum bob, looking like she stepped from a sepia photograph. Jumping far forward, into the next century, Mykkanen sang of “The Land of the Dead.” Excerpted from Davis’ song cycle, “Home After Dark,” he and lyricist Sean Hartley have updated the Hades/Persephone myth to the present day. Hades is a programmer who has lured Persephone to his apartment and refuses to let her go. Not every online stalker is so beneficent, but while the situation is creepy, it is entirely imaginable in the way that Hades sings his paean to loneliness and nascent love. Davis’ final selection was “Brief Candle” from “The Scottish Musical,” a musical imagining of the play that dare not say its name unless it’s being performed. Worsham’s clear tones illuminated the strength of knowing that, as brief as our candles may burn, give them that chance. When you do, that brilliance may transcend your mortality, as it did the Bard.
Peter Foley took the podium next with a course that was so different from Davis. Mykkanen returns with further inspiration in “To Sing” from “Songs from an Unmade Bed.” Written with Mark Campbell in 2003, it has a contemporary feel, very modern and expansive and, when it’s contrasted with “The Happiness,” from “I Capture the Castle,” we find that Richardson takes us into the heart of a very young woman, about to step out into womanhood from the girl she had been moments before, as she recounts the joy of her first kiss. Finally, two works from “Bloom,” Foley and Matthew Heimer’s story set during what may have been the first recorded speculation activity–trafficking in tulips! During the Dutch Golden Age, tulips were the mania of the age. Recently introduced, people just had to have them and single bulbs often went for ten times what a cabinetmaker or a smith made in a year! We know nothing of such bubbles today in our advanced society, but Foley and Heimer have crafted a delicious tale. “Darkness” and “Don’t Miss the Barge,” with the latter providing an opportunity for the company to be choral texture, as well as drunken bidders for, essentially, tulip futures, since there was no guarantee that a bulb or seed would come to fruition. Opportunity knocks but once.
Thalken’s final set was a dynamic piece of programming featuring first Worsham and Mykkanen as young Dorothy and young Wilbur, as the orphaned girl sees snow for the first time. A peak experience, shared, is that much more special and the onomatopoetic snow falling in the music contrasted with the desire of two children to enjoy the hush, and the cold and the softness of one of nature’s wonders, it came from “Was,” in part the story of how real life Dorothy Gael may have inspired Frank Baum’s Oz. The next selection, also from “Was,” was performed by Rita Gardner, whom many may recall was the original Luisa in “The Fantasticks.” Singing the title song, Gardner invests it with a life of longing, clear-eyed reminiscence and a wistful joy of life well lived, but wouldn’t it be grand to live forever in “Was.” Changing pace then, with “Trying to Figure” from “Borrowed Dust,” from Paula Haupt’s Inner Voices Solo Musicals series, Estabrooks takes what could be a sere, bleak feel and breathes warmth into this song from a through-composed project. Finally, the evening was capped off with a song that could have been written expressly for NYFOS, “The Chance to Sing,” from “Harold and Maude.” Gardner returned, backed by the complement of soloists, with the fullest expression of the evening “…Don’t miss the chance to sing.”
The audience drew a collective breath, and we began to applaud. Mentally, I made a note to put the second half of this season’s “Next” on my calendar, Russell Platt and Friends, on April 24, 2012 at 7p.m., also at Mary Flagler Cary Hall, even as I contemplated the addition of several of these songs to my own repertoire. If you’re tired of retread musicals—pun oh-so-intended—get out of the doldrums. Be inspired and give the gift of music with tickets to NYFOS and NYFOS Next. I’ll see you there!


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