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New York Festival of Song Presents "Take Care of This House": A Bernstein Celebration, at Merkin Hall
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New York Festival of Song Presents "Take Care of This House": A Bernstein Celebration, at Merkin Hall

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Kaufman Music Center
New York Festival of Song
Steven Blier, Artistic Director, Co-Founder
Michael Barrett, Assoc. Artistic Director, Co-Founder

Take Care of This House:
A Bernstein Celebration

Chelsea Shephard, Soprano
Lucia Bradford, Annie Rosen, Mezzo-soprano
Miles Mykkanen, Tenor
Justin Austin, Baritone
Adrian Rosas, Bass-baritone
Barry Centanni and Taylor Goodson, Percussion

Michael Barrett and Steven Blier, Piano

At Merkin Concert Hall

Press: Aleba Gartner:

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
November 7, 2017

What a thrill it was to be attend my first seasonal concert of New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), so beautifully and exceptionally organized by Steven Blier, in program notes and audience asides, some of which are mini-music history lectures, with Mr. Blier’s personal anecdotes and impressions. Tonight’s program was dedicated to the centennial (two-year long) celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, in August, 1918, in Massachusetts. Maestro Bernstein, whose official website is linked above, was a founding advisor to NYFOS, now in its thirtieth year. Mr. Blier chose Bernstein’s entire, twelve-part Songfest for the second half of tonight’s performance, as it’s a compelling vocal work, composed to poems that include a multitude of moods in a tonal and lyrical map of Americana, premiering in 1977 for a post-bicentennial event at the Kennedy Center.

The first half of tonight’s concert included songs from West Side Story, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, (1957), Candide, lyrics by John Latouche and Richard Wilbur, (1956), Wonderful Town, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, (1953), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, (1976), On the Town, lyrics by Comden and Green, (1944), and Arias and Barcarolles, texts by Bernstein, (1988). The songs were performed with gestural dramatization in solos, duos, trios, and ensemble formations, drawing the audience into the pleasantries and poignancies of the emotions and context of each tune. As always, amidst the songs in NYFOS events, one is immediately impressed with the intriguing new talent of these youthful vocalists.

A generous selection of songs from West Side Story included Miles Mykkanen’s “Something’s coming”, with operatic resonance and suave persona, Chelsea Shephard and Annie Rosen’s “A boy like that / I have a love”, a soprano-mezzo duet, sung with warmth and vibrancy, and “Tonight Quintet”, sung Broadway-style by Ms. Shephard, Lucia Bradford, Mr. Mykkanen, Justin Austin, Adrian Rosas, and Ms. Rosen. Candide was represented by an ebullient rendition of “You were dead, you know”, sung by Mr. .Mykkanen and Ms. Shephard, while Wonderful Town was remembered with “The story of my life”, imbued with tonal black humor, dramatically performed by Ms. Rosen.

The bicentennial, briefly staged musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a little-known show, was introduced tonight with two songs, “We must have a ball”, sung with reverence and poise by Mr. Rosas, with stage support from the cast, and “Seena”, sung by Mr. Austin with bravura persona. On the Town was showcased with a showstopper, “Ain’t got no tears left”, sung by a bluesy, brassy Ms. Bradford, in one of this cast’s many “breakout” moments. Ms. Rosen then harmonized with Mr. Austin in the esoteric “Prelude” and “Love Duet” from Arias and Barcarolles.

The twelve poetic songs of Bernstein’s Songfest opened with the Company singing Frank O’Hara’s poem, “To the Poem”, like street corner carolers, followed by Mr. Austin singing Ferlinghetti’s “The Pennycandystore Beyond the El”, in which one might hear phrases evocative of West Side Story. “A Julia de Burgos”, by de Burgos, was sung in Spanish, vociferously with verve, by Ms. Shephard. It should be noted that Mr. Blier, a true Renaissance man, also translated this poem for the program. Walt Whitman’s “To what you said” was sung languidly and longingly by Mr. Rosas and the Company, with a long piano introduction. Langston Hughes and June Jordan wrote the poems “I, too, sing America” and “Okay Negroes”, and the poems, sung sequentially with reverence by Mr. Austin and Ms. Bradford, had poignant, historical texture. “To my dear and loving husband”, a poem by Anne Bradstreet, was sweetly performed by the trio of Ms. Shephard, Ms. Rosen, and Ms. Bradford.

“Storyette H. M.”, a poem by Gertrude Stein”, sung by Ms. Shephard and Mr. Rosas, was impressionistic with a very jazzy piano tune, while e. e. cummings’ “if you can’t eat”, both atonal and engaging, was sung by the Company. Conrad Aiken’s poem, “Music I heard with you”, seemingly composed with evocations of Poulenc, merged Ms. Rosen’s warm vocals intermittently with the piano accompaniment. “Zizi’s Lament”, words by Gregory Corso, sung by Mr. Mykkanen, was the least engaging of the twelve, with silly, nonsensical patter. But, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”, sung by Ms. Bradford to a John Musto arrangement for two pianos, evoking Kurt Weill, was haunting and eloquent, ending in percussive timpani. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Israfel”, sung by the full ensemble, completed Bernstein’s magnificent Songfest. Below is the final verse of Poe’s poem, “Israfel”:

“If I could dwell
Where Israfel
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He might not sing so wildly well
A mortal melody,
While a bolder note than this might swell
From my lyre within the sky.”

Throughout tonight’s extraordinary NYFOS tribute to Bernstein, both Mr. Blier and Michael Barrett took turns on their gorgeous pianos for interludes, introductions, harmonies, and finales. Mr. Barrett also conducted the timpani and vocal ensemble from his keyboard. And, as noted above, Mr. Blier entertained the enthusiastic NYFOS fans with educational facts and anecdotes, always with wit and wisdom. The timpanists, Barry Centanni and Taylor Goodson, added understated effects with a variety of rear stage percussion, perfectly timed and toned for textured ornamentations. A final encore brought out the ensemble, divided near each piano, for a luminous tune of humming carolers. Kudos to all, and kudos to Leonard Bernstein.

New York Festival of Song
"Take Care of This House":
A Bernstein Celebration
Steven Blier (l) and Michael Barrett (r) on Piano
Vocalists (l-r): Chelsea Shephard, Annie Rosen,
Lucia Bradford, Miles Mykkanen, Justin Austin, Adrian Rosas
Barry Centanni and Taylor Goodson on Percussion
Courtesy of Cherylynn Tsushima

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at