20 February 2013

NYFOS Sings Brel & Trenet

Charles Trenet

Each time I attend a concert of New York Festival of Song, I am uplifted. Artistic director Steven Blier builds programs around themes that are always intriguing, and his eclectic tastes are impeccable: yes, he likes all kinds of songs, but only the good ones. He’s also got a knack for selecting fresh talent, often before I’ve heard them sing much if ever, so a big part of the uplift is the simple optimism that other concerts, in other venues, will be satisfying, too. After all, as an impresario, accompanist, and teacher, Blier is among the most significant forces that have revolutionized recital programs in America over the past few decades: it is now standard for sets and entire performances to be organized around themes, and the repertoire has expanded far beyond art songs and arias.

Last night’s performance of songs by Jacques Brel and Charles Trenet provided eloquent, abundant proof of the qualities I admire in NYFOS programs. Even in the work of two songwriters I know well, Blier found numbers unfamiliar to me, and I’d never thought of pairing the angry Belgian with the sunny Frenchman: the combination shed new light on both. To lend authentic flavor to the proceedings, Blier invited two top-notch musicians, guitarist Greg Utzig and accordionist Bill Schimmel (who’s also one of the leading exponents of Weill’s music). With two native-French singers of exceptional charm, it was a memorable evening all around.

Jacques Brel

Indeed, mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand was so brilliant that one almost regretted that this wasn’t a solo recital — contravention though that would be of the NYFOS philosophy that it’s better to share the music (with each other, with the audience, with the world). Pert and pretty, funny as hell, Lenormand fully inhabited the dramatic situation of each song, and she expertly negotiated the vocal distinctions between chanteuse and cantatrice. Moreover, the woman knows how to work a crowd. We were at her mercy, and we loved her for it.

Singing opposite her, the young tenor Philippe Pierce, a graduate of Brown University (go, Bruins!), would have been justified in boasting if he’d merely avoided letting Lenormand mop up the floor with him, but he managed to hold his own and to shine, notably in the opening number, Brel’s “Valse à mille temps,” with its accelerated tempos and tongue-twisting lyrics. Pierce sailed confidently through. Since Trenet was approximately a baritenor and Brel decidedly a baritone (who played the lead in Man of La Mancha, by no means a tenor role), it must be said that, generally, I’d have preferred a darker voice in this music, but Pierce’s linguistic skill and aforementioned charm did offer valuable compensations.

Tenor Philippe Pierce

In Blier’s piano accompaniment, he showed generosity to the young singers but didn’t mollycoddle them; throughout the evening, his affection for this music was audible and infectious. In his arrangements, he did better by those numbers in which Utzig played banjo (creating the perfect atmosphere) than by those in which the indisputably accomplished Utzig played electric guitar, which unbalanced the acoustic and didn’t contribute much that seemed truly necessary. (It seemed mostly a kind of sonic filler.) Schimmel’s accordion, however, was right on the mark, and he plays so well that one forgets how badly other people play. Even watching him is a pleasure, like watching a great dancer.

This music is important to me, in ways that transcend aesthetic considerations, and Trenet’s songs in particular hearken to summers by the sea and to the spirit that guided so many of my explorations of France and its culture. (After all, when you speak a childish French, and when everything is new to you, you do acquire a youthful, Trenet-esque exuberance, even if you’re not a kid anymore.) To be honest, since the death of my mother-in-law last month, I’ve not had the heart to listen to Trenet or to Brel, and some of their songs can wring wracking sobs from me even on a good day. I managed to hold it together through Brel’s “La chanson des vieux amants” and “Ne me quitte pas” and Trenet’s “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?” and “La mer,” not through any lack of commitment on the part of the musicians but through sheer willpower on my own.

The Indispensable Steven Blier

The real surprise was a Trenet song, “J’ai mordu dans le fruit de la vie” (I’ve bitten into the fruit of life), which I had always supposed was one of those rosily nostalgic-slash-congratulatory numbers with which Trenet, in old age, pandered to little old ladies in his audience. Au contraire, as Blier pointed out in his introduction, it’s nearly a confession of Trenet’s homosexuality — precisely the kind of song I hoped for but didn’t find in “Tu me manques, Johnny” (about which I wrote here). Trenet was the Gypsy Rose Lee of French pop music when it came to revealing his true self, and excepting songs about his childhood, he seldom removed so much as a metaphorical eight-button glove, but Blier made a persuasive case for this song as a personal statement, and Pierce sang it with sincere but gently restrained feeling.

NYFOS’ next concert, “Song of the Midnight Sun,” will be March 12 at Merkin Hall, and features Caramoor’s 2013 Terrance W. Schwab Vocal Rising Stars in music of Scandinavian composers, with Blier and NYFOS’ associate artistic director (and the Caramoor Center’s current artistic advisor and former CEO and general director) Michael Barrett on piano. For information and tickets, click here.

Meanwhile, I have a new mezzo to worship.
Mesdames et messieurs, Marie Lenormand.
(I’d heard her before, notably as the Fox in Houston Grand Opera’s production of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, but she surpassed all expectations last night.)

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