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"Fire" and "Fantasy", Jacques Brel and Charles Trénet, Presented by New York Festival of Song at Merkin Hall
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"Fire" and "Fantasy", Jacques Brel and Charles Trénet, Presented by New York Festival of Song at Merkin Hall

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New York Festival of Song
Steven Blier, Artistic Director
Michael Barrett, Assoc. Artistic Director
Elizabeth Ellis Hurwitt, Executive Director
Paul DeRosa, Chairman, Board of Directors

Jacques Brel & Charles Trénet:
Fire and Fantasy

Marie Lenormand, mezzo-soprano
Philippe Pierce, tenor
Bill Schimmel, accordion
Greg Utzig, guitar
Steven Blier, piano and arranger

At Merkin Concert Hall
(Merkin Hall Website)
Press: Aleba Gartner Associates

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
February 19, 2013

Program: “Jacques Brel & Charles Trénet: Fire and Fantasy”
Works by: Jacques Brel and Charles Trénet.

What a delightful evening at Merkin Hall, with the highly talented New York Festival of Song. Steven Blier chose, for the 40th anniversary of his public performances, two composers that he’s compassionate about, Jacques Brel and Charles Trénet. I hope he revisits this minimalist approach, showcasing time-honored melodies, because the Hall was sold out, and he was drawn into an encore. I think this audience would have stayed another hour or into the night, for this engaging show. Mr. Blier always offers comical or educational anecdotes to enhance his programs, but tonight was special. He brought us right into Paris in the 30’s to 60’s, enlightening his fans about Brel’s explosive passion and Trenet’s sublime imagination. Tonight’s two accomplished opera vocalists, Marie Lenormand, soprano, and Philippe Pierce, tenor, sang with native French accents (both are French-born) and outsized theatrics. On stage for this event was a guitarist, who added fancy ornamentations, Greg Utzig. Also on stage was one of the finest accordionists I have ever heard, Bill Schimmel, known in American Tango circles, who exuded poignancy and a rare symbiosis with each of the two singers, as well as with the shifting moods of the lyrics and dramatics. Of course, Mr. Blier was at the Steinway. It helped to be sitting front row for this, to absorb the music and personalities.

The Brel half of the evening opened with “La Valse à Mille Temps” (1959), sung by Philippe Pierce, as if he were on a carousel. He exuded a sense of wonder and innocence, before the piece ended in faster and faster tempos. Ms. Lenormand, in red-black heels and a sequined black skirt, then joined Mr. Pierce, in his dark suit, for “Les Paumés du Petit Matin” (1962), a song about wealthy youth who drink till dawn. Ms. Lenormand was cradled as she feigned inebriation. For “Rosa” (1962), Mr. Schimmel filled the hall with accordion crescendos, while Mr. Blier added soul on the Steinway. This song, performed by Ms. Lenormand, possessed wit and enthusiasm, “…that all Rosas have their thorns”. Brel’s “Les Bourgeois” (1962) followed, with both vocalists onstage. This full-hearted duet was a story of a youthful, rowdy bunch, who taunted the erudite lawyers of the middle class, until they grew up into their nemeses, being taunted by youths. “Sur La Place” (1955) was sung by Ms. Lenormand, with knowing glances and energized expressiveness. It should be noted that, as always, the lyrics are translated into English in the programs, here from the all-French repertoire. .

Brel’s “Madeleine” (1962) was sung by Mr. Pierce with varying tempos, languorous to racing, accompanied by ever-so-light piano, accordion, and guitar effects. His lyrics shone brightly in the spotlight, “Madeleine will like that, Madeleine is my hope”. It was astounding that the vocalists needed no page prompts, with the vast number of French verses on most songs, and the vast number of works, sung tonight with no intermission. “La Chanson des Vieux Amants” (1967), Mr. Pierce’s next solo, was about an old couple, who admitted affairs and other storms, but they grew old together with no regrets, “always a tender war”. Ms. Lenormand’s rendition of Brel’s renowned “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (1959), my longtime favorite, about loss and longing, was exquisite. She sang with gestures and quietude that lingered on her persona, long after the music ended. Mr. Schimmel accompanied with the pathos of tango, in elongated, searing notes. Brel’s “Le Diable, ou Ça Va” (1954) was sung as a duo, with powerful political innuendo, “Nothing is for sale, but everything can be bought…”. Brel was the “Fire” in this program, while Trénet was the “Fantasy”.

The Trénet half of the evening opened with “J’Ai Ta Main” (1937), a lighthearted, breezy piece, sung by Mr. Pierce. It’s a fluffy, romantic, ode to young love. “Vous Qui Passez Sans Me Voir” (1937), a rhythmical, danceable song, sung by Ms. Lenormand, was performed with enchantment and warmth, "I have enough memories to smother myself – of tears, of flowers, of kisses …”. “Le Soleil et La Lune” (1939), sung as a duo, was campy, affectionate, and original. Once again, Mr. Schimmel’s accordion lit up with Argentinean tango-like rhythmics. “J’Ai Connu de Vous” (1938), a solo for Mr. Pierce, had him swaying and swinging, a bit, as he operatically crooned. This music had a natural beat, with the stage musicians adding elements of musical conversation. “L’Âme Des Poètes” (1951), a solo for Ms. Lenormand, gave her impressive mezzo talent a bright spotlight. At this moment she was ever so evocative of Piaf, in image, gesture, and musicality. “J’Ai Mordu Dans Le Fruit De La Vie” (1955), brought Mr. Pierce out to enact this song, composed by Trénet to celebrate his “coming out”. Ms. Lenormand followed with the exotic and elegant “La Mer” (1946), Trénet’s ode to the sea. She belted out these lyrics with joyful abandon. The final piece on the program, a duo, was sung in English, Trénet’s “Grand-Maman C’Est New York!” (1948), a tale of a fortyish man, who travels with his grandmother to his favorite destination, New York City, where “The seagulls say hello…”. Steven Blier’s encore gift was Trénet’s “I Wish You Love”, sung in duo, en français. Kudos to all.

Steven Blier
Photo courtesy of Dario Acosta

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