Vocalist - Baritone
New York Festival: Comic and Dramatic Flair to Honor Two Composers
Leonard Bernstein's music has long been a staple of the New York Festival of Song's thematic programming, so this year, with the 90th anniversary of Bernstein's birth (Aug. 25) celebrated far and wide, it made sense for the festival to open its 21st season with a hefty sampling of Bernstein's songs on Tuesday evening at Merkin Concert Hall. Even so, Bernstein did not have the program to himself. After the intermission the focus shifted to William Bolcom, who turned 70 in May, and whose music has a stylistic omnivorousness -- as well as a sense of humor -- similar to Bernstein's.

For the occasion the festival's two pianists and directors, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, assembled a cast of six singers, who performed together and separately, in a program shaped with dramatic flair. On the Bernstein half, ensemble pieces from the orchestral cycle "Songfest" framed selections from "Arias and Barcarolles" and a handful of theater works.

It took the singers a few moments to find the right tone. Renée Tatum, a mezzo-soprano, applied an operatic intensity to "Dream With Me" that seemed wrong for this sweetly modulating outtake from "Peter Pan," although Ms. Tatum's personalized phrasing kept her account compelling. William Sharp's theatrical approach to "The Love of My Life," from "Arias and Barcarolles," seemed miscalibrated as well, but he brought greater subtlety and suppleness to the introspective "Seena," from "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

The heart of the Bernstein segment was a group of songs from "Wonderful Town." Alex Mansoori, the tenor, gave a lively, smartly characterized performance of "100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man," and, with Sari Gruber, the soprano, a comic but sharply focused reading of "Ohio." Ms. Gruber also moved easily between the comic spoken sections and the more deeply felt verses in her elegant performance of "The Story of My Life."

Mr. Bolcom's music moves with a suave assurance that serves comic and dramatic impulses equally well, and he has an extraordinary facility for weaving the harmonic accents of blues and jazz into more formal and complex structures. Songs like "How to Swing Those Obbligatos Around," sung zestily by Rebecca Jo Loeb, and the darker "Otherwise," which Ms. Gruber sang, seem simple on the surface but are rich in surprising melodic turns.

The most effective pieces were calling cards for two of Mr. Bolcom's operas. From "McTeague," Mr. Sharp gave a deftly characterized account of the retributive "Jehosophat," and Ms. Gruber brought a mad eroticism to "Golden Babies." And Mr. Mansoori gave an acidic reading of "The Establishment Route" from "Casino Paradise."

To close the concert the festival ceded the stage to Mr. Bolcom and his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, for a brief cabaret set. As fine as the younger singers were, Ms. Morris's superb way with a phrase in Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Humphrey Bogart," John Wallowitch's camp "Bruce" and Mr. Bolcom's "Over the Piano" was a master class in comic timing.
Allan Kozinn, New York Times
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