“Terminal patients in the already quarantined world of classical music.” That’s how Steven Blier grimly characterized the reduced status of vocal recitals a decade ago, when he and Michael Barrett made the nervy decision to co-found the New York Festival of Song. Perhaps Blier was right, back when only starry names like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Janet Baker could sell enough tickets to fill Carnegie Hall for an evening of lieder and song. But times have changed. The world of classical music was never as sick as doom-and-gloom types wanted us to believe, singers of all kinds are now darlings of the concert scene, and the New York Festival of Song flourishes. To celebrate, Barrett and Blier recently put on a delectable tenth-anniversary concert at the 92nd Street Y, further proof that musical communication is never quite so immediate, personalized, or stimulating than when a healthy voice is raised in song.
Of course, such good things do not happen by themselves, and the Festival of Song has been in the best of guiding hands right from the start. Over the past ten years, NYFOS concerts have utilized the services of more than 130 singers – a rich body of vocal talent – and these two discerning pianist-impresarios have capitalized on it with entrepreneurial cunning. Imaginative programming prods these singers to give of their best, and that is another factor in the group’s success. The first half of the anniversary evening recalled many favorites from past seasons, beginning with Susan Graham’s luscious rendition of Hahn’s “À Cloris” and peaking with Amy Burton’s scrumptious “J’ai deux amants” from Messager’s L’Amour masqué – could Yvonne Printemps in person have sung this charmer more irresistibly? NYFOS regulars William Sharp and Kurt Ollmann revisited songs by Brahms and Poulenc with predictably exquisite results, and once again the world seemed a better place after the team of Bolcom and Morris finished relishing a classic pop ballad from days of yore. No singer I know holds an audience more tightly than Joan Morris, even with the wispiest of voices. But then, never underestimate the power of song. This enchanting performer once confessed, and I’m inclined to believe it, that she decided to go professional only after a homeless person heard her singing to herself one day in Central Park and gave her a dollar.
Part two of the program was appropriately devoted to songs in celebration of song. Leading off with “The Song Is You,” the indestructible Roberta Peters sounded fresher than any soprano who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1950 has a right to. A highlight toward the concert’s end was Rodgers and Hart’s “Sing for Your Supper,” warbled with swinging virtuosity by Sylvia McNair, Susan Graham, and Stephanie Blythe. Classically trained young American singers move into the Broadway idiom with ease, and this million-dollar trio audibly rebuked the amplified shouting that now passes for singing in musical comedy. Harolyn Blackwell is another soprano who could give Broadway babies a few lessons – and what a pleasure to hear her voice radiate into the hall with a newfound assurance after a period of uncertain career moves. But then, wonderful singers always seem just that much more wonderful when they join up with NYFOS, each time proving Blier’s firm belief that there is nothing more beautiful, or more fun, than a song.