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NYFOS Celebrates American Composers

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Anyone who has caught a concert or two by the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) during its past 22 seasons as a fixture on the New York concert scene might be familiar with its novel approach to programming: a topical conceit or literary theme, or a musical, dramatic, or poetic point of view serves as the basis for a finely curated evening of songs from every walk of life. On a typical NYFOS concert, it’s not at all unusual for selections to range from popular standards to rarely heard gems that would otherwise have been left to gather dust on a seldom visited shelf in a dark corner of some distant library. In what has become an annual tradition now five years running, NYFOS and its co-artistic directors, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, will once again team up with Juilliard’s Department of Vocal Arts to present a concert on January 13, featuring singers from the School. Unlike previous collaborations—“100 Years of Juilliard Composers in Song” in 2006 or “Songs of Peace and War” in 2007—this time around, the title of the program, “Killer B’s,” might need a little elucidation.

Michael Barrett (left) and Steven Blier are co-artistic directors of the New York Festival of Song.

(Photo by Dario Acosta)

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“The original ‘Killer B’s’ came from a project I did in the late 1980s,” explained Blier, who has been on the Juilliard faculty since 1992, in a recent e-mail message. “We devised a program that told the history of 20th-century America using the songs of three composers—Irving Berlin, Marc Blitzstein, and William Bolcom. About a decade later I was thinking back on that program and I realized just how many other great American songwriters’ names started with B—Bernstein, Bowles, Burleigh, Barber, Beach … and decided to expand on the original idea for a program I was devising at Wolf Trap. That show went so nicely that I resolved to bring ‘Killer B’s’ to New York.”

While this incarnation of “Killer B’s” will draw heavily on Blier’s existing program, it is not a verbatim revival. A major part of the project requires the student performers to do a significant chunk of the programming research and to bring their musical and thematic discoveries to the discussion, all with the goal of creating a program that reflects the diverse strengths of the cast. “Last year’s NYFOS/Juilliard concert, ‘Latin Lovers,’ was a tremendous experience for us,” Blier said. “It unleashed floods of exuberance and passion, and introduced the students to new styles and new languages—many of them had not sung in Spanish, and no one had sung in Portuguese. But I largely devised the program, because Argentinean, Cuban, and Brazilian songs are not easy to find. This year, I wanted to maintain the exuberance and passion, and of course keep some dance numbers.” 

Barrett echoed the sentiment. “The students are all deeply involved, researching new songs, suggesting repertoire, discussing program order, and writing program notes. This part of the process is engaging, and serves as a good window into everyone’s tastes and personality,” he wrote via e-mail. 

Blier and Barrett have learned over the years that having an intriguing subject is one thing; charging students to go out and bring back good material is definitively another. “The difficulties making such a program [as ‘Killer B’s’] are the same as its possibilities: the only hook is an orthographical conceit, a fluke of fate—the letter B. There is no overarching thematic idea, just a blank screen and a bunch of songbooks,” Blier said. But he underscored the value of this sort of challenge. “‘Killer B’s’ is a cool project to research, and the students have responded with tremendous energy. Meredith Lustig went off in search of songs by Jerry Bock and Ernest Bacon, and found two stunning pieces that I hope we can use [the program was not quite finalized at press time]. Adrian Rosas had a brilliant inspiration—pairing songs by Bolcom and Blitzstein to tell the story of a father and a child. Tim McDevitt brought in a killer song by Jason Robert Brown. Everyone, in fact, is coming up with great ideas.”

“Killer B’s” will indeed be “killer,” according to NYFOS’s executive director, Elizabeth Hurwitt, because “it will run the gamut of American song, with all the vernacular vigor that contains. It will be very exciting as a learning experience because it has just the right degree of structure and challenge: we’re bringing in an eclectic program NYFOS has done before on our main stage, but inviting the students to substitute material of their own in key spots.” She added, “For our NYFOS subscriber audience, NYFOS/Juilliard has become one of the most anticipated events of the year. Among others in the Juilliard audience, and among our Juilliard collaborators—from Brian Zeger and Jacqueline Schmidt in Vocal Arts, to Nick Saunders in the box office—I feel the program is welcomed more warmly with each successive season. I get the sense that everyone has come to expect that NYFOS/Juilliard will bring them wonderful surprises.” 

After all the programming surprises are set, a delicate and detailed process that involves many weeks of work, it’s time for music. “This is when I see the greatest artistic growth in the students.” Barrett said. “My favorite experience comes in observing how much each performance develops as we continually search for ways to express the meaning of the text and music together. I am inspired by the level attained through this process, and when the adrenaline kicks in at performance time, I often have the delight of hearing that extra 10 percent of magic that can happen.”

The cast of singers this year features sopranos Catherine Hancock and Meredith Lustig; mezzo-sopranos Naomi O'Connell and Carla Jablonski; baritones Timothy McDevitt and Carlton Ford; and bass-baritone Adrian Rosas. Blier and Barrett cover the keyboard duties, while Jeanne Slater, a member of the Vocal Arts faculty, provides choreography for a few key numbers.  

Blier sees the fact that the program is all in English, the mother tongue of everyone in the cast, as an added benefit. “Working in English means that the students can find songs that tell the stories they want to tell. ‘Killer B’s’ will help them understand what makes a good comic song; experience the way songs relate to each other and expand their meaning through new contexts; and explore the music of composers they don’t know much about. The students are teaching us a thing or two as well. That’s the beauty of the process. I don’t know yet what this year’s ‘Killer B’s’ is going to be all about, but this creative, brilliant group of singers is already charting a new, surprising path.”

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