The New York Festival of Song opened its 28th season with a tribute to Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote several song cycles during the first (Russian) half of his long career. After moving to New York to escape the revolutionary violence in his native country, the composer never returned to the song form. But his long and active residence in our city makes any celebration of his work seem exceedingly fitting. In the event, with Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova, baritone Shea Owens, and theremin player Dalit Warshaw joining pianist/arranger Steven Blier and pianist Michael Barrett, the NYFOS’s tribute was a stellar evening.
The selections spanned a quarter-century of Rachmaninoff’s creative output, from the early “In the Silence of the Night,” written when the composer was just 17, to some of the modernistic, expressively questioning songs of his Opus 38, from 1916. The program notes, together with Blier’s warmly funny and deeply appreciative onstage commentary, placed the songs in context, while, supported by fine accompaniment from the pianists, Owens and Kuznetsova delivered them with glorious voices and all the feeling and musicianship the composer deserves.
Owens’s rich, woodsy baritone seemed perfect for Rachmaninoff’s emotional language. The baritone charged the above-mentioned yearning love song “In the Silence” with the brash confidence of a head-in-the-clouds teenager; the recitative-like “Beloved, Let Us Fly” with artful composure; and Rachmaninoff’s only comic song, “Were You Hiccuping?”, with cabaret-style playacting. His impressive high note punctuated the rustling-of-leaves piano figures in “The Torrents of Spring.” In all his numbers he was a commanding presence with a twinkle in his eye.
I’ve never been a fan of operatic singers taking on jazz and pop songs. Rather than elevating them, it often makes them sound, to me, somehow cheap or hollow. But Owens sang George and Ira Gershwin’s “Little Jazz Bird” artfully enough that I didn’t hate it.
That was one of a handful of songs on the program by composers Rachmaninoff crossed paths with in New York, also including Joseph Schillinger, two of whose “Vocalises” (songs without words) NYFOS presented with the theremin taking the melody. I’ve always been intrigued by that eerie electronic instrument, which you play by moving your hands along its elements without actually touching anything. As Blier commented, the theremin never really caught on after an initial flush of popularity in the early 20th century, possibly – I suspect – in part because it’s really hard to play completely in tune. But it was certainly a fun element to include in this program.
Kuznetsova was simply spectacular. In “To Her,” inspired by Rachmaninoff’s infatuation a century ago with the star soprano Nina Koshetz, her modern-day successor was somehow regally intimate, moving easily between queenly dominance and princess-like innocence. Kuznetsova sang the peaceful vision of death called “Melody” like a tragic operatic ingenue, and her voice shone like 24-carat gold in the relatively well-known “Harvest of Sorrow,” wafting effortlessly through sweetness, storminess, and a simple, gentler clarity.
The concert ended (save an encore that brought the whole ensemble together for a surprise number) with two of Rachmaninoff’s most intriguing songs, both from Opus 38. Kuznetsova sang the gossamer melody of “Sleep” as Blier played the composer’s light, dreamy chords that go unexpected places. She shone again in “A-oo!,” the last song the composer ever wrote, with Barrett sensitively spinning out its lengthy piano coda to its unresolved conclusion.
That lack of resolution was a fitting closing for a tribute to a composer who had come to the end of a stage of life knowing not where he would wind up or even if he would make it out alive. Here in New York, where he lived his last 17 years at 505 West End Avenue, we’re glad he did.
The NYFS season continues with “Schubert|Beatles” on December 8, 2015. See www.nyfos.org for details.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00IE6ZWJQ][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B009WQJCLQ]