March 30, 2014
Only Steven Blier could possibly concoct a program as rich, colorful, and provocative as the one he brought to his annual New York Festival of Song Schwabacher Debut Recital. Jointly sponsored by the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program, the late Sunday afternoon recital in Temple Emanu-El’s sharply resonant Meyer Sanctuary began with music by Villa-Lobos and ended with Smokey Robinson. If that doesn’t make you smile, I’m not sure what will.
Blier’s tour of heart and place explored the history of courtship and the yearning for intimacy in locales as disparate as the Amazon forest, Norwegian fjords, English countryside, post 9/11 USA (Gabriel Kahane), soul city America, and the Broadway stage. Excerpts from song cycles by Villa-Lobos, Grieg, Bridge, and Kahane (b. 1981) were framed by marvelous ensemble pieces, some of them unaccompanied, by the aforementioned Brazilian, Stenhammar, William Sterndale Bennett, Sondheim, and Robinson.
Blier not only spent a week coaching the Adlers (who had been intensively prepped by Adler Fellow Noah Lindquist), but he also accompanied them and interspersed their performances with some of the most informed, witty, and colloquially charming commentary to ever spice the recital stage. As an opportunity to dust the cobwebs off the recital format and showcase the diverse talents of two first-year Adler Fellows — soprano Maria Valdes and mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde — and two second-year Fellows — tenor A.J. Glueckert and baritone Hadleigh Adams — it could not be beat.
Blier’s remarkable ability to not only persevere amidst the challenge of progressive muscular dystrophy, but also remain at his creative peak, delivered bountiful rewards. Chief among them was the artistry of four young singers who were far more at home with their material than at the last Schwabacher Debut Recital.
The undeniable standout of the afternoon was tall, dark, and handsome Adams, who brought to Kahane’s The Memory Place singing as idiomatic, convincing, and virile as did John Raitt to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He also succeeded remarkably in shucking his New Zealand accent.
Kahane, whom Blier characterized as the “love child of Schumann, Fauré, and Stevie Wonder,” is the son of pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane. Known for his Craigslistlieder (2006), which has already found its way onto many a recital program, Kahane mostly writes for himself. How fortunate we are that Blier convinced him to part with The Memory Place, a deeply evocative tour of five historic East Coast locales. The cycle deserves a place alongside the music of Jake Heggie and Ricky Ian Gordon as one of America’s most successful mergers of classical art song with a contemporary pop/Broadway sensibility.
After launching into Kahane’s “Underberg,” with a stylistic integrity and emotional identification that brought to mind the artistry of the young Joni Mitchell, Adams infused the final songs with rare vulnerability. Perhaps he laid on the sentiment a bit too much — in a whamo song like “Rochester,” which addresses individual and collective complicity in a horrible suicide, less is more — but the palpable honesty of his approach and the masterful beauty of his singing were irresistible.
Atlanta-born Valdes’ rendition of three songs from Villa-Lobos’ Floresta do Amazonas (The Forest of the Amazon) was almost as successful. Bringing her fine soprano, which was as bright, clear and beautiful as her delicious blue dress, to material Blier characterized as “art song in a string bikini,” she nailed the the sensuality of the songs.
Leaning into the crook of the piano like a cabaret singer set on nailing her prey with voice alone, Valdes’ close to “Cair da tarde” (Dusk) was simply gorgeous. After emitting a dangerously sexy chest voice, she was a bit too swoony when hitting some of the high notes of “Melodia sentimental” (Sentimental Melody). Nonetheless, her perfect diminuendo at song’s end, and her ability to soul forth in the ensemble rendition of Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” swept all reservations aside.
Singing four of Grieg’s Six Songs, Op. 48, which Blier coyly called “songs of secret love in the forest,” aka “what happens in the forest, stays in the forest,” Latvian-born Švēde again graced us with her wonderful warm, plush tones. Wanting, however, was more energy. The voice was simply too relaxed and restrained for the excitement of “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall” (The Silent Nightingale), which should come across as a sexual confession from one girlfriend to another.
Also underplayed were the heartbreak of “Zur Rosenzeit” (In the Time of the Roses), and the ecstasy of the well-known “Ein Traum” (A Dream). There is so much promise in Švēde’s dreamy voice, which blends ideally with soprano in ensemble, that I can’t wait to hear how her solo work develops after another intensive year in the Adler Program.
If Glueckert arrives next to last in this accounting of gifts — praise is also due Blier’s watery pianism and ever-apt tonality — it is certainly not for want of beauty of voice. While it’s hard to coax ultimate warmth and merriment out of him (Wagner may indeed prove his best path forward) Blier and Lindquist did manage to highlight Glueckert’s ability to emit sweet, half-voiced highs and produce idiomatic phrasing in English language material.
For such a fabulous program, at least one encore was in order. Blier and the Adlers obliged with a fine quartet from Bernstein’s Candide. The awkwardly presented flowers were certainly in order. But why just to the two women, rather than to all five artists onstage? Next time, women Adlers, pluck some blooms from your bouquets, and distribute them to your equally deserving male counterparts. Blier alone deserved a cart-full.