The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), now in its 23rd season, is well known among concertgoers for its uniquely ecumenical approach to recital programming. Instead of following a standard template—the smattering of belovedlieder here, the dutiful readings of a few American songs there, the inevitable humorous closing number to wrap things up—Steven Blier (who has been on the Vocal Arts faculty since 1992) and Michael Barrett, the co-founders and co-directors of NYFOS, choose a theme for each concert and use it to explore a broad spectrum of song. Everything is given consideration, from the warhorses of the repertoire sung in the most refined classical style and the musical theater numbers belted in the best Broadway tradition to songs that may never before have seen the light of day.
“Thematic programming is a concept that has been kicking around for a long time,” NYFOS’s executive director Elizabeth Hurwitt said in a recent e-mail. “It can be carried out in a simplistic, superficial way—or it can deepen and enrich a concert immeasurably. The festival’s track record for richness has depended on a few key factors—and these factors are what make it more difficult, not easier, to make the program, but in the long run far more interesting.” In its annual collaboration with Juilliard, NYFOS’s goal isn’t just to put on a show. Instead, Blier and Barrett charge their student performers with doing a good part of the programming research.
“The process of creating these NYFOS programs is so rewarding,” according to cast member Meredith Lustig, a master’s degree soprano studying with Edith Bers. “Both Steve and Michael have a gift for teaching you the ins and outs of programming,” she said. “I love sitting in a library, surrounded by books, the possibility of having the next killer number in your hands.”
The trick for student programmers, Hurwitt noted, is “to be goal-oriented enough to end up with something that’s performable and entertaining to an audience—and to be adventurous and curious enough to seek out surprises and discoveries, including some surprises that awaken not just the audience, but the programmer, too.”
This approach means that a lot of proposed songs don’t make the final cut. But, as Lustig pointed out, “The real beauty of this work is that none of it goes to waste! Every song that is discovered is its own gem—what might not be quite right for this program often sticks with you or sparks an idea for another.”
This year’s NYFOS/Juilliard collaboration, “Road Trip,” is a sort of musical travelogue of the United States. “I thought it would be a good research project for the students,” Blier said. “I asked them to look for songs with a strong sense of character and drama. The mere mention of a place isn’t quite enough. ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’ could just as easily be ‘Stars Fell on Indiana’ or ‘Stars Fell on California.’ What I want is a song with a story, like Irving Berlin’s ‘Washington Square Dance’ which is about Democratic and Republican senators learning to work together; or a very funny piece about the road signs of Massachusetts (‘Entering Marion,’ by John Forster); or the opening scene—in German—from Emmerich Kalman’s horse operetta Arizona Lady; or Tan Manhattan, a salute to Harlem by ragtime king Eubie Blake.”
While the musical diet for most singers at Juilliard consists primarily of art songs and arias, “Road Trip” features “a lot of popular music, theater music, and folk music,” Blier said. “I find that this idiom can unleash a kind of creative freedom in singers who spend a lot of their energy preparing for careers in opera. Vernacular song is a great way to reconnect vocalists with something that can easily get lost when they’re focused on opera and European art song: the need to communicate directly, immediately, and clearly with an audience.”
Most of the cast is familiar with the style and context of the popular American musical idiom but, as Blier noted, “I do have a student who is Irish, Naomi O’Connell, and she has applied herself with great energy to the task of making the program. She’s come up with some very good ideas—good songs, as well as some interesting ways of tweaking the structure of the program. Of course, the American students have also had terrific suggestions, and everyone wants their home state to be represented. Stay tuned.” (The artist-programmers were still deep in negotiations at press time.)
The cast for “Road Trip” includes soprano Meredith Lustig; mezzo-sopranos Lacey Benter and Naomi O’Connell; tenor Daniel Curran; and baritones Tobias Greenhalgh, Willie Liverman, and Timothy McDevitt. Vocal Arts faculty member Jeanne Slater will create choreography, and Blier and Barrett will assume keyboard duties.
Questions of programming and process aside, Blier, a veteran performer, remains mindful of the ultimate goal for his students. “I want them to learn to take charge of the room either by bringing the audience in toward them as they create an intimate, shared moment, or by spritzing the walls with vaudevillian command and perfect comic timing,” he said. “American song is a stern mistress, but the rewards are tremendous. And all of these singers have a true flair for it.