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Manhattan Diaries at Wolf Trap

Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jeremy Little, Joshua Jeremiah, and Sasha Cooke, Manhattan Diaries recital, Wolf Trap, photo by Kim Witman
Steven Blier's recital last year at Wolf Trap, on the theme of Four Islands, ended with the island of Manhattan. Picking up where he left off, Blier put together a Manhattan Diaries recital on Saturday night, again showcasing four singers in the Wolf Trap Opera program. In his work for New York Festival of Song and places like Wolf Trap, Blier has few equals in encyclopedic knowledge of the song repertoire and savvy in putting together satisfying programs. This is what makes singers so happy to work with Blier, even though he might ask a tenor to sing a part written for a low-voiced woman (which he did, describing the sex-changed role as a "post-op tranny") or ask two male singers to sing a love song about setting up house. That he could even make me enjoy a program principally comprised of Broadway songs is a testament to the man's skills. In fact, the focus of the recital initially made me decide not to cover it. So, here was the music critic at a concert, intending not to write a review at all.

Writing about music in this forum for four years now has had some impact on how I listen to music. Because I also play (piano and organ) and sing, I have always been an analytical listener, a tendency only heightened by years in graduate school for musicology. Essentially, when you listen to as much music as I do, live and in recordings, it boils down to trying to distinguish the excellent, even heart-stopping, from the merely good. This can seem cruel, no matter how much I try to be respectful of all the musicians I hear. Listening to this recital without having to think about writing a review did alter my experience. It was not that any of my tastes or opinions changed, or that I stopped listening critically, but the experience became much more centered only on the five performers on stage at that moment, without that analytical part of my brain making comparisons to other performances. The fact that I was seated between the sister of one of the singers and the mother of another, who were holding a conversation around me, further took me out of my normal reviewing mode.

As always with a Steven Blier recital, there were major discoveries: David Heneker (Peg), Ricky Ian Gordon's What Shall We Remember?, Harry Ruby's The Sheik of Avenue B, and John Musto's Litany (extraordinary poem by Langston Hughes). As always, there was excellent singing and not a little stage foolery. Anne-Carolyn Bird displayed consummate vocal control and shimmering tone in Ned Rorem's The Lordly Hudson; baritone Joshua Jeremiah and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (both noteworthy voices) gave a hilarious rendition of the taxi duet from Leonard Bernstein's On the Town; tenor Jeremy Little gave a sweet reading of Richard Rodgers's A Tree in the Park from Peggy-Ann. Some selections were less pleasing to my ear (Sondheim), others were right up my alley (Bernstein and Ferlinghtetti's The pennycandystore beyond the El), and there were many classics from the golden age of music theater (Irving Berlin, Cole Porter). There was even a tribute to Evelyn Lear, seated a couple rows in front of me, who was cast as the lead in Reuben, Reuben, a failed musical by Marc Blitzstein. And the critic has no more criticism to offer. For that, you will have to read Grace Jean's review in the Post.

The Wolf Trap Opera concludes its season with a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute (August 17 and 18) in the Filene Center.

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