11:42 am Nov. 30, 2010
Steven Blier, the artistic director of the New York Festival of Song, was in his sunny Upper West Side apartment recently, coaching the handsome young baritone Jesse Blumberg. Christopher Berg's song "Is it Dirty," set to a poignant poem by New York School poet Frank O'Hara, was their material, and for the song to work, the singer sort of has to be gay.
Well, not be gay (which Blumberg is not), or even necessarily walk or talk or deliver the song in an effeminate manner. But after a well-sung and honestly felt runthrough, Blier stopped Blumberg to talk to him about his interpretation. What words to emphasize? Where to put the emotional force? Where precisely is the location of the melancholy wit, the rueful defiance, that makes the song, well, gay?
Tonight and Thursday at Merkin Concert Hall, Blier, Blumberg, and three other singers will present "Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life," under the auspices of NYFOS. Billed as "two centuries of songs by and about gay men," from Schubert to John Wallowitch's "Bruce," it's a celebration, pure and simple, as well as an education: some people, Blier reports with shock, don't even know that the great 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc was gay.
But wait: Aren't these kinds of identity politics passé in 2010?
Blier makes the case that, unlike in theater, TV, or film, classical music and cabaret—worlds which have been intricately intertwined with the gay experience—have been notably reticent about celebrating gay culture.
"I don't see a lot of this in the classical world," Blier said before his rehearsal with Blumberg. "Certainly in the song world, you don't see too many examples of 'guy-heit.' I am very excited about doing this program. I know it works like gangbusters, and I feel very enthusiastic about it. I think it's a step for NYFOS in that it's not as quote-on-quote 'safe' as some things we do."
NYFOS is known for carefully curated concerts featuring talented young singers, but the themes, it's true, are generally innocuous: an evening of songs about the sea, say, or a selection from composers whose names all start with "B." But Blier has been nursing the slightly more provocative idea for "Manning the Canon" (he has a taste for puns and bawdy jokes) for over two decades.
"I knew we had to do it when we previewed the show last year and it succeeded and it was funny and warm and not militant," the 58-year-old Blier said before his rehearsal with Blumberg. "We gay guys, we're always looking for tolerance. I hate that word, 'tolerance.' I don't want to be tolerated, I want to be loved. I want to be sought after for my qualities, not in spite of my qualities. How nice, at this point in history, that we're not trying to get into this party or this club that doesn't want us. We're throwing the best party in town, and why don't you come, it's going to be great, everyone's welcome."
He and Michael Barrett started NYFOS in 1988. Blier had been inspired by a song series a colleague had curated in Israel that had used explanations and texts to connect the audience with the material.
"Mostly when art songs are performed," he said, "it's a chore, it's like a root canal. How can I get it over, when will it be over? But if you tell somebody something about a song, they're listening for something, and when they hear it they go, 'Ahh, that's the magic spot, aren't I smart for realizing it, and didn't I enjoy it?' You want people to have a point of entry."
Blier and Barrett had a cheap, regularly available space at their disposal—the Greenwich House Music School on Barrow Street in the West Village—where they presented four concerts in the first two months. "It was like a laboratory where we could do anything," Blier said. Over the next few years, there were dozens of programs, including American songs, ballads, French works set to Verlaine and Rimbaud, twentieth-century German lied, featuring then-little-known singers like Peter Kazaras, Kurt Ollmann, Bernarda Fink, and Amy Burton. The great mezzo Lorraine Hunt was a frequent collaborator.
Gradually, the series became established in the city's cultural scene, and for 22 years it's been a reliable source of the kind of relaxed, quirky, genre-crossing programming that's surprisingly rare in New York. Much of the charm of NYFOS is due to Blier, who plans the concerts and accompanies all of them. A disarming, gossipy, natural performer, he can sometimes be an even greater source of pleasure than his up-and-coming singers. As a private coach as well as a teacher at Julliard and a casting advisor at New York City Opera, he has ready access to the best young talent, enough to keep fueling many more years. But each concert, even the ones realized more quickly than "Manning the Canon," is a struggle.
"You keep going in your series, you need to top yourself," he said. "It terrifies me. After every concert, I think, This is the last decent idea and decent playing I'm ever going to do. I don't know if I have another one in me."
He's got lots he still wants to do, particularly a program of Czech songs, but a note of uncertainty has been added by Blier's struggle with a form of muscular dystrophy called FSH disease. The illness has affected his mobility and caused him to use an electric wheelchair. His hands, though, are still agile, and he plays with elegance and passion. Rehearsing with Jesse Blumberg, it was clear that "Manning the Canon" is even more of a labor of love, more personal, than his other concerts.
"You hear 'Montparnasse,'" he said of the Poulenc song on the program. "It's a poem by Apollinaire, a straight guy, and it's a self-portrait. But the song is such a wet dream, looking at this beautiful young guy standing outside a hotel. It's no longer a self portrait, it's an objective thing. The songs in this context suddenly seem gayer. They seem about homoerotic desire, the way I've felt it and experienced it."
And finally, the "gayness" of the program, while giving the audience a way of making connections between the songs, is just a conceit that happens to bring together a great, and unexpected, combination of works.
"The thing that ties everything together is fascinating, but it's just a great playlist, it's just a great concert."
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks