Above: mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, photographed by Dario Acosta
Tuesday December 4, 2012 - The New York Festival of Song presented an evening of vocal works celebrating WOMEN at Merkin Hall. Back-to-back grand pianos stretched elegantly across the stage where a trio of singers, two pianists, and a boyish and brilliant cellist served up a splendid feast of music, much of it written very recently.
Songs by John Musto and Ned Rorem opened the evening, with soprano Camille Winters and baritone Andrew Garland lovingly supported at the keyboards by Steven Blier and Michael Barrett. Mr. Rorem, in the forefront of contemporary composers for voice, was in the audience and took a bow.
The young baritone then sang the oldest works on the programme, Schoenberg's Galathea and Chausson's Cantique a l'epouse. These two contrasted romances offered the opportunity to savor Andrew's handsome voice, his expressive dynamic palette, and his wonderful clarity of diction.
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and cellist Jay Campbell brought their magic to bear on the world premiere performance of Mark Adamo's cycle The Racer's Widow. The composer chose five seemingly unrelated poems to create a narrative in which a woman meets, marries and loses her man; he is present in the voice of the cello. The work could have been written for Sasha and Jay, so ravishing was the melding of their 'voices' with the piano, most especially in the second song, a Tennessee Williams setting entitled Across the Space. The third song concludes with a wordless vocalise for Sasha, so persuasive in its simple beauty. In the fourth song, The Racer's Widow, the cello falls silent denoting the death of the man; this opens with Sasha speaking. Adamo sets Sara Teasdale's The Beloved as the cycle's poingant finale: "...to have known you better than the rest have known." Here - and indeed throughout the cycle - Sasha Cooke's fragrant and infinitely touching vocalism drew us out of the everyday and far into the realm of poetry; her magical mastery of straight tone and the quiet luminosity of her sustained piano notes were nothing short of miraculous, while Teasdale's words tore at the heart:
"The tenderness, the depth of tenderness, rich as the Earth and as wide as heaven is wide."
The composer of this marvelous work took a bow from his seat, to especially warm applause. Perhaps an intermission was needed here, both to savour and to recover.
But the evening moved forward with Carla Kihlstedt's A Woman's Body, a collage of the poetry of eight women fashioned in to a wry but moving chronicle of aging. Believe me, these concerns are not the sole property of the female: how every single day to look in the mirror and see an old strange person looking back while inside we still feel vibrant, energetic, sexy. Andrew Garland sang this music with relishing verbal clarity and just the right touches of irony.
Between the Adamo and the Kihlstedt, the evening had become almost uncomfortably personal, so it felt good to step back a bit as Sasha offered a Britten lullabye and Andrew sang Thea Musgrave's hymnlike I Love My Jean. (Ms. Musgrave was also present). The evening's only programming miscalculation was the includion of Judy Collins' classic My Father. I've heard classically-trained singers attempt this song before and - no disrespect to Ms. Winters - it simply doesn't work. The words are too personal and only Judy herself can sing it. It's not a matter of style, but of feeling.
The evening ended with a sonic treat: Mohammed Fairouz's captivatingly colourful cycle A Prayer for the New Year. Sung by Corinne and Sasha, with the striking participation of Jay Campbell's cello, the work flourishes amid many references, from mid-Eastern to bel canto to full-blown lyricism. Sasha's solo with Jay's heartfelt playing had the feel of a Russian romance, and here again Sasha's colours and use of straight tone were fascinating. The work ends with an enchanting coda for cello and piano. The young composer bounded up onto the stage to receive the audience's grateful applause.
As an encore, the three singers blended their voices in a trio from Rorem's Evidence of Things Not Seen.
So it was a meaningful and moving evening of music-making, and I was so happy to see Kate Lindsey and Matt Murphy there. And - though I didn't get to speak to her - Eve Shapiro: seeing her always brings back poignant memories of a time when I spent hours and hours at Juilliard, shortly after I moved to New York City.