In designing and executing his "New York Festival of Song" programs, Steven Blier, teacher, pianist, scholar, coach and personality extraordinaire, has come up with an entirely idiosyncratic art form.
It is a song experience.
It brings together a small group of singers, songs that share some ethnic or poetic or chronological relationship (or perhaps all three), and Blier's own charming narrative. You leave feeling as if you've just been part of an intimate salon where the secrets of the music, the composers and, sometimes, of Blier himself have been deliciously gossiped about. Blier has been at this for 18 years and he shows no signs of running out of ideas or insights.
The program he and fellow artistic director Michael Barrett, a pianist, brought to the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center on Sunday was called "Since the Seventies: A Generation of Song." Most of the music was by American composers (two of them Latin American). Some of them, such as Ned Rorem, Lee Hoiby, William Bolcom, Aaron Kernis, Stephen Sondheim and John Corigliano, are well known, and others, including Ricky Ian Gordon, Gyorgy Kurtag, Richard Pearson Thomas, James Primosch, Robert Beaser, John Musto, William Harvey, Jeffrey Stock and Adam Guettel, not so well known.
What the songs all shared was reverence for both the text and the voice. These are all composers who have left behind the mid-20th-century years of experimenting with the dehumanizing of the human voice and have returned to lyricism.
Sopranos Michelle Areyzaga and Susan Narucki, tenor Steven Tharp and baritone Ian Greenlaw shared the vocal duties, timing their entrances and exits with the kind of exquisite care that made everything seem to happen casually.
Areyzaga gave warm and touching readings of Bolcom's "Let the Evening Come" (accompanied with authority by violist Leslie Tomkins) and Harvey's "When I Have Fears." Narucki, whose diction throughout the evening alternated between the excellent and the incoherent, was splendid in the unaccompanied snippets of Kurtag's "Sayings From the Notebooks of Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs." Tharp did a nice job with the very different demands of Hoiby's quiet miniature "What If" and his dramatically absurd "Jabberwocky," and Greenlaw sang gorgeous songs by Odaline de la Martinez and Osvaldo Golijov with quiet power. Blier, as pianist and commentator, was, as always, a delight.