To kick off the season, the New York Festival of Song—best known as NYFOS—tried to throw a gala but laid an egg. Yes, the luminous mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke floated the valedictory "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" of Mahler in phrases that were preternaturally serene, the gruffly amiable basso Matt Boehler gave the nostalgic folksong "Shenendoah" a reading that was spacious and personal, and the soprano Amy Burton savored the sultry absence that makes the heart grow fonder in "Penelope's Song," by her husband John Musto. But the theme of the concert was "Where We Came From," promising songs of home, and connecting the dots (geographical, elective, metaphorical) was largely a matter of grasping at straws. In addition to the singers named above, there were seven others, all heard from at some length in show tunes, lieder, romances, and novelty numbers.
At a whisker shy of three hours, it all added up to less than the sum of its parts. The crux of the problem lay in rambling comments from the principal pianist Steve Blier, who with his fellow pianist Michael Barrett cofounded NYFOS in 1988. The line between emcee and crashing bore is not a fine one. When Blier prefaced an encore—Gilbert & Sullivan's "Hail, poetry!" ensemble, all hands on deck—with a synopsis of The Pirates of Penzance, he had long since passed the point of no return.
In conscience, Blier has much to be proud of, and allowance must be made for his physical condition. He motors onstage on a cart; the mere act of moving to the piano bench is a feat of quiet heroism. Even so, in a public forum, professional standards apply. Unhappy with the introduction of a song, Blier frequently stopped and started over with a twinkle, a bit of self-indulgence the vocalists (many of whom he helped launch as songsters) took with better grace than it deserved.
The fresh-faced tenor Paul Appleby, who scored a hit at the NYFOS gala with the sizzling "Samba clássico" of Villa-Lobos, returned the following Sunday in a solo recital with the Marilyn Horne Foundation. Leading with a tender group of German-language rarities by Grieg, he proceeded to fragrant salon pieces by Roussel and Roussel's Spanish disciple Carlos Lopez Buchardo, then to Britten folk-song settings and traditional Irish numbers. As encores, he offered Bolcom's "New York Lights," the hit from the opera A View from the Bridge, and Bruce Springsteen's "Fire," eerily evoking the young Elvis. On many counts, Appleby seems a throwback to the age of innocence when the border between art songs and popular entertainment went totally unpoliced.
An eminent cellist once told a budding colleague in a master class that all music fell into two basic categories: love songs and pirate songs. For love songs, Appleby has a crooner's sweet falsetto, which he is not shy about using to dreamy effect. In the pirate vein (the clarion "Avenging and Bright," for instance, as set by Britten) he lets fly with manly swagger, often flushing beet red. His partner for the afternoon was none other than Steve Blier, who this time focused on the job at hand, displayed unflagging imagination, a flexible command of style, and a mentor's pride, and spoke not a word.