New York Festival of Song

He was talking from the stage about the day mezzo Sasha Cooke walked
into his office fresh off the boat from Texas and the day tenor Paul Appleby
waltzed in from Indiana. And another hundred people just got off of the
train…. If they are terrific singers, I hope they turned to the New York
Festival of Song (NYFOS). I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t.

Appleby,-Paul-(Ken-Howard).gifPaul Appleby [Photo by Ken Howard]

The first concert of this year’s series was devoted to youth, and
specialized accordingly in songs not merely about youth but often those
composed by very young composers, composers who went on to bigger things. But
those of us who love early Verdi operas and early Rodgers & Hart musicals
and the Grateful Dead before they were everywhere appreciated the
connoisseurship of reveling in very young FaurÈ and Schumann and Rorem and
Busoni and Grieg and Ives and Sondheim—and slightly older Gershwin and
Dylan. What themes inspire young composers to give a hint of how worthwhile
they will become? Is it all lindenb‰umen and young love’s first
blight? Or is it … anticipation?

I first noticed Sasha Cooke when she sang the Sandman in the Met’s
otherwise vocally undistinguished new H‰nsel und Gretel, a moment of
childlike magical glee, just right for Humperdinck. In a tiny hall like Merkin
with its very live acoustic (when a small chorus sings there, you can hear each
individual voice), she sounds quite different: Her voice is enormous, plush,
lustrous, easily so, and perfectly supported. For most of a song recital, of
course, she scales it back to merely very pretty, but whenever she reached an
appropriate climax, restraint falls away like a superfluous shawl, and the
results are resplendent—intimate, but hugely intimate. As an interpreter,
she had the most fun becoming a small child for Ned Rorem’s “A
Journey,” the bashful maiden boasting of her first conquest in
Grieg’s “Verschwiegene Nachtigall,” where she slipped
flawless little ornamental turns into the nightingale’s insinuating
“Tandaradei,” the rather more sophisticated maiden of Hugo
Wolf’s “Begegnung,” the aching hopefulness of
Sondheim’s “Take Me to the World,” and—in duet with
Appleby—the breathless expectant wonder and the contrasting, consummated
coda of Charles Ives’s delicious “Memories”
(“We’re sitting in the opera house”). She is a singing
actress to anticipate and a voice to hear one of these days in a place where
she can let it fly.

Cooke,-Blier,-Appleby.gifSasha Cooke, Steven Blier and Paul Appleby

I haven’t heard Paul Appleby on the opera stage and, frankly, his
voice seems (like Cooke’s) too delicious, too full-sized, too able to
only be a concert singer, first rate as he is at that subtle skill. He has a
smooth, supple delivery and inhabits his narrators: reveling in
Schubert’s matchless invention in “Geheimnis” (Schubert was
19 at this point, almost an old master: the song is already D.491) and Vaughan
Williams’s “Silent Noon.” Then, in moves and accent and
exultant manner, he became with entire believability a Midwestern youth come to
take the city by storm in Christopher Berg’s rollercoaster setting of
Frank O’Hara’s “I’m Going to New York,” then
cocky with adolescent sexual discovery in William Bolcom’s setting of
Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew A Woman” and bitter with youthful
disillusion in Marc Blitzstein’s “In the Clear.” His voice
has power, but he holds it in reserve when portraying character; it comes out
in songs like Paul Moravec’s setting of Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps

Later concerts this season will be devoted to Songs of Gay Life and Songs of
the Iberian Peninsula. Spain has been a NYFOS destination before, but we are
unlikely to run low on little-known Iberian song literature anytime soon.

John Yohalem

image_description=Sasha Cooke [Photo by Nick Granito]
product_title=New York Festival of Song
product_by=Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano; Paul Appleby, tenor. Steven Blier and Michael
Barrett, pianos. Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center, New York. Performance of October 19.
product_id=Above: Sasha Cooke [Photo by Nick Granito]