A Banquet of Song From the Belle Epoque Years

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

If you're going up against opening night of a new season of "The Sopranos," you'd better pack some serious heat. And that's what Steven Blier, the erudite but unstuffy director of the New York Festival of Song, did on Sunday night, bringing to the Terrace Theater an inspired recital of art song from belle epoque France.

His adventurous program covered the three decades of anything-goes creativity that started in Paris at the tail end of the 19th century and ran until the start of World War I. Taking a cue from Roger Shattuck's classic book "The Banquet Years," Blier pulled together nearly two dozen works, including barely-there miniatures by Eric Satie, a few of Maurice Ravel's more recherche broodings, and a trio of funny, gutsy cabaret songs from Marcel Bloch and Leon Xanrof.

What gorgeous stuff it all was. Among the abundant riches were Francis Poulenc's "Le Bestiare," six songs with poems by Guillaume Apollinaire; Blier warned that they would continue to detonate long after the music had stopped, and sure enough they do. And Camille Saint-Saens's "Si vous n'avez rien a me dire" is one of the more darkly moving love songs to ever arise from the mind of man, an unforgettable work that grips the heart and refuses to let go.

Mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand and baritone Hugh Russell (with Blier at the piano) brought it all off in high style, with smart, nuanced interpretations and engaging onstage confidence. Kudos to Washington's Vocal Arts Society for this latest in a long series of superb and always intriguing concerts.

-- Stephen Brookes

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