New York Festival of Song and Young Concert Artists come together for a feast of lyrical delights

United StatesUnited States Various, All Together Now: Chelsea Guo (soprano / piano), Megan Moore & Erin Wagner (mezzo-sopranos), Daniel McGrew (tenor), Joseph Parrish (bass-baritone), Francesco Barfoed (piano), Steven Blier (piano / arranger). Merkin Hall, New York, 21.2.2024. (RP)

Chelsea Guo (soprano) and Joseph Parrish (bass-baritone) © Cherylynn Tsushima

Clément Janequin – ‘Les cris de Paris’
Mozart – ‘Più non si trovano’, K.549; ‘Mi lagnerò tacendo’, K.437 (Sei Notturni)
Schubert – ‘Ständchen’, D.920/921
Beethoven – ‘He promised me at parting’ (12 Irish Songs, WoO154 No.12); ‘They bid me slight my Dermot dear’ (25 Irish Songs, WoO152 No.18)
Brahms – ‘Die Meere’, Op.20 No.3
Saint-Saëns – ‘Pastorale’
Fauré – ‘Pleurs d’or’, Op.72
Shostakovich – ‘The thoughtful mother and aunt’; ‘Winter’; ‘Happiness’ (From Jewish Folk Poetry, Nos. 3, 8 & 11)
Libby Larsen – ‘Jack’s Valentine’
Matt Boehler – ‘Let Beauty Awake’
Owen Wilson – ‘In My Room’ (arr. Blier)
Gunnar Madsen & Richard Greene – ‘Trash’

All Together Now, a collaboration between Young Concert Artists and New York Festival of Song, was a pure delight. Five exciting young singers, all with thriving solo careers, performed works for two or more voices that spanned six centuries of music. Some of the works, such as ‘Les cris de Paris’, a chanson by the French Renaissance composer Clément Janequin, were for voice alone, while others, including works by Schubert, Fauré and Shostakovich, called for piano accompaniment.

All the performers, save Steven Blier, the Artistic Advisor of NYFOS, are YCA Artist Fellows. For more than 60 years, YCA has invested in extraordinary young musicians, fostering the careers of artists such as Emanuel Ax, Julia Bullock, Jeremy Denk, Ray Chen, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Kevin Puts, Pinchas Zukerman and many more. Even though Blier is not a YCA alum, he has accompanied a fair share of them over his long career and readily acknowledges his debt to the organization.

Blier’s written program notes and his comments during the program should be preserved for posterity. He has a rare ability to distill his decades of mining the song repertoire into witty and insightful comments. Who else would care to inform the audience that Saint-Saëns once danced an after-hours pas de deux in drag with Tchaikovsky on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater?

The singers who combined their voices in duets, trios, quartets and quintets were mezzo-sopranos Megan Moore and Erin Wagner, tenor Daniel McGrew and bass-baritone Joseph Parrish. The fifth singer, Chelsea Guo, is a rara avis among musicians for being as accomplished a vocalist as she is a pianist. All are active on the New York music scene and recipients of innumerable awards. A week earlier, Wagner was the recipient of a prestigious George London Award.

Moore’s regular musical partner, Francesco Barfoed, who is pursuing a doctorate at The Juilliard School, served as another of the piano accompanists, in addition to Guo and Blier. As with every NYFOS concert, this one was a labor of love for Blier, who founded the organization in 1988. He readily acknowledged that he had help in organizing the concert, and gave a special shoutout to McGrew, who sent him a two-page list of suggested repertoire, some of which made it on to the program.

The works performed, even by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, are seldom heard in the concert hall. The sole exception is Schubert’s ‘Ständchen’, which was performed here with a twist. Originally written for alto soloist and a male quartet, it was sung by the three women singers and McGrew, with Parrish as the most rich-voiced and stylish erstwhile suitor imaginable.

Although Beethoven is not generally associated with setting poems from the British Isles, he did many arrangements of Irish, Scottish and Welsh folk songs. Even more surprising is that he churned out more folk song settings than any other type of composition.

The Irish folk songs – ‘He promised me at parting’ and ‘They bid me slight my Dermont dear’ – are just two of his 179 arrangements. In a performance that Blier called ‘mixed doubles’, he and Barfoed accompanied Guo, first partnered by McGrew and then Parrish, in the two songs. A combination of vocal perfection and charm made this one of the lyrical highlights of the concert.

A particularly evocative offering was Fauré’s ‘Pleurs d’or’, which Blier described as a Pre-Raphaelite drawing captured in music. With Blier again at the piano, Wagner and McGrew sang of tears in all their manifestations with lovely, perfectly etched tone. Most beautiful of all was when the voices combined to sing of tears shed on a starry night.

Selections from Shostakovich’s From Jewish Poetry were the emotional bedrock of the program. The Soviet composer was not alone in his fascination with folk songs, but he was particularly intrigued by Jewish music. This was definitely a nonstarter when he composed the songs in 1948 with Stalin as ruler, and there was no hope of a public performance. That only came in 1955, once Stalin had died and there was a cultural thaw of sorts in the Soviet Union.

The songs were performed in Yiddish, which was what Shostakovich desired, although they were originally published with Russian texts and often performed with bad German translations. Wagner and Moore gave a heartfelt rendition of the lullaby, ‘The thoughtful mother and aunt’. Their voices created a wondrous sense of intimacy and beauty in bestowing a blessing on a beloved child. They spun more emotion out of the word ‘lyu’ (which means to lull or go to sleep) in its various repetitions than the heart could bear.

Two composers of the Minnesota School were also represented on the program. Guo, Wagner, Moore and McGrew joined to deliver ‘Jack’s Valentine’ in a spirited, pin-point accurate, joyous declaration of love. The man in the title is Jack Kerouac, the American beat poet.

Matt Boehler’s ‘Let Beauty Awake’, composed in 2023, received its New York premiere here, performed by McGrew and Parrish. They are among the most stylish singers on the scene, and ‘Let Beauty Awake’ got the one-of-a-kind performance it deserves. Boehler is also a singer with a thriving career, and his bass voice has been heard in previous NYFOS concerts.

‘In My Room’, a Beach Boys’s classic, came next and was done by the five singers. Parrish anchored this tender, reflective rendition of a perennial favorite, which was released by the Beach Boys on their 1963 album, Surfer Girl. Parrish produced the rhythm effects with his voice alone.

There was California dreaming of a different sort with the final work, ‘Trash’, a song associated with the West Coast a capella doo-wop group, The Bobs. As Blier quipped, it is a case of ‘bad hygiene inspiring a really good song’. This time, it was Moore who provided the rhythmic delights with stratospheric beeps that punctuated the frustrations of a woman whose man creates and wallows in more squalor than she can tolerate.

For an encore there was a musical recipe for chili con carne direct from Sweden’s The Real Group. Bubbling with energy and zany lightheartedness, the singers were a smash with this effervescent, energetic number. If the refrain ‘Don’t forget the Mexican spices!’ didn’t tickle one’s funny bone, just what would?

Rick Perdian

Featured Image: Chelsea Guo (soprano / piano), Steven Bleir (piano / arranger), Daniel McGrew (tenor), Francesco Barfoed (piano), Joseph Parrish (bass-baritone), Megan Moore (mezzo-soprano), Erin Wagner (mezzo-soprano) © Cherylynn Tsushima

Leave a Comment