On Tuesday, February 16th, New York Festival of Song presented a concert at Merkin Hall entitled The Voluptuous Muse which included unknown and rarely heard art songs from late-Romantic, post-Wagnerian era. Anyone from Alexander Zemlinsky (187-1942), Nicolai Medtner (1879-1951) and Joseph Marx (1882-1964) to the likes of Alban Berg (1885-1935), Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) and Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) were on display for the audience to discover and enjoy.
Strangely erotic and yet subtly sumptuous, the music didn’t necessarily thrill you or send shivers down your spine. However, there were moments that haunted you the entire evening like a ghostly shadow stalking your every footstep. This was simply a beautiful concert that was thoughtfully planned and meticulously executed with perfection.
The evening began with the “Marienlied” by Marx which was poignantly sweet. It was immediately followed by the duet “Song of Songs” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). The latter was ritualistically sexual in a simple, understated way – setting the mood for the rest of the evening.
Joseph Kaiser joined NYFoS with a light lyric tenor voice that was beautiful when he simply sang. Yet like all tenors, there were those darn high notes which he seemed to strain ever so slightly to reach, especially in Sergei Rachmaninov’s (1873-1943) “Kakoje schast’je” which was the most passionate song of the evening and just a little over-sung. You could see him thinking about his singing technique all evening. Still, it was not hard to listen to Mr. Kaiser as he worked to convey the musical emotions through his voice rather tastefully.
Kate Lindsey, a light-voiced lyric mezzo-soprano, sang with a strange straight-tone quality to her sound – as though she had been training to become a boy soprano. She possesses a decent instrument and you catch a rare glimpse of what it could be when she forgets about the straight-tone and just opens her mouth to sing. However, she was so preoccupied with the characteristic that it affected her diction rather profusely. It also gave her an airy sound in the voice that covered up the core making her pianissimo high notes almost inaudible. It was awkward to listen to in some pieces, but eerily beautiful in others like the “Ganymed” by Hugo Wolf (which closed the first half of the concert on a rather peculiar note.
Undeniably the favorite of the evening was Russian Soprano Dina Kuznetsova who possessed a lusciously dark voice. She playfully danced through “The Rat Catcher” of Rachmaninov and opened the second half of the evening with the expressively passionate, heart-wrenching passages of the “Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin” from Szymanowski which she handled flawlessly.
The evening progressed with pieces from little-known composers like Alma Mahler (1879-1964) who Mahler begged to stop writing. Before doing so, she put pen to paper for “Laue Sommernacht” which gave you the impressions of a torch song and was just as smoky in texture. Then there were pieces by Alban Berg that caught you by surprise being rather melodic and hauntingly beautiful. Rachmaninov’s “Son” (The Dreams), sung by Kuznetsova, was an absolutely sublime composition. The accompaniment became a stream of succulent chords flowing from the piano reminiscent of water enveloping a rock. Kuznetsova floated the notes with such expression that one could only sit and enjoy the blissful sounds that filled the hall.
Emcee for the evening, Steven Blier, and his long-time partner and producer, Michael Barrett, accompanied the singers with well-seasoned fingers that gracefully played the ivories with expert precision and expressiveness. Thereby giving the music the respect and the presence it rightfully deserved in a way that only they are able. Their strong support at the keyboard and witty humor at the microphone made the evening zip by rather quickly even though the songs were languidly inert. The knowledge this pair imbues upon the audience during the course of an evening is remarkable and thoroughly enjoyable. Music teachers everywhere should take notes and learn how to make class time fun again.
Alas, like a fine glass of wine that is enjoyed more when you sip than when you gulp, the evening’s music was best handle in small doses. Too much is too much and the party should always end before the full affects of the wine cause the guests to start acting in ways that can only be blamed on their altered state of consciousness – that is the gloriously sexual intoxication of The Voluptuous Muse.