Steven Blier, pianist, coach, musicologist and lover of French song both sublime and ridiculous, accompanied and presided over a quartet of 2004 Filene Young Artists and an evening of 19th- and 20th-century chansons at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday. Blier had been working with these young singers -- sopranos Kristin Reiersen and Melissa Shippen, tenor Nicholas Phan and baritone Aaron Judisch -- for just a week, but by the time Friday rolled around, he already had them offering something highly unusual for musicians at the beginning of their careers: performances whose greatest strength was musical imagination.
A program of 24 French songs all written within a 60-year period, performed in turn by four singers (with all the to-ing and fro-ing that this implies) with commentary in between, might well have been an artistic and logistical nightmare. But things could not have moved more smoothly.
Blier's programming was a model of artistic sophistication. There was a group of four songs that reflected a "purple" period of velvet drapes and high romanticism; a group that broke from the restraint of French inflections and ventured into Spanish-influenced rhythms and melodies; a group with texts that dwelled on chance encounters; and so forth. His comments were both fascinating and funny, timed to perfection to enhance the flow of the evening, never to interrupt it, and the songs themselves were a wonderfully handpicked selection that ranged from sentimental to cabaret to dada.
The singers did a fine job of projecting the particular character of each song. Reiersen was at her best in the naughty ones and navigated the challenges of Massenet's "Sevillana" (which Blier described as "a tacky coloratura showpiece I adore") with aplomb. Shippen, with a voice that in its midrange is sensuous and beautifully focused, was particularly effective in quieter and contemplative songs like Franck's "Le Mariage des Roses"; her diction and ability to concentrate all the way through the end of the song were outstanding. Phan was a splendid actor with a voice that was as convincing a vehicle for love songs as for comedy, and Judisch, with a light but well-focused baritone, did a great job of communicating the zaniness of Milhaud's "Caramel Mou." Blier accompanied it all with a consummately French flair.