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Canon ball

gay_lifeNew York Festival of Song’s Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life is a delightfully lighthearted, deeply personal, and colorful recital made of equal parts sex, camp, melancholy, and tenderness.  Steven Blier‘s wide-ranging program consists of five sets of songs, each meant to evoke, as per his program notes, “a quintessential moment of a gay man’s experience (read: this gay man’s experience)”.  The odd-numbered sets are comprised of cabaret and musical theater pieces and the even-numbered sets of art song. 

Going into this concert, I was a bit apprehensive.  In choosing to review this, I knew it would be somewhat of a challenge.  After all, even though I am a gay man, I am too young to have experienced Gay Liberation, and have little familiarity with the formative gay cultural icons and iconic moments which are part of the Parterre vernacular, but have me rushing to Google.

That being said, I felt almost completely at home thanks to Mr. Blier’s amusing and informative remarks delivered from the stage before and sometimes during each set (did I hear him refer to Camille Saint-Saens as an outlandish queen?), which never overstayed their welcome.  Of course a song recital needs singers, and NYFOS did not disappoint in providing four versatile artists who were equally comfortable in lofty art song and bawdy cabaret, all delivered with crisp diction.  Whether or not these men are actually gay is of little consequence; they all portray the emotions and experiences unique to gay life with unforced sincerity as well as those which are universal.  Mr. Blier has clearly spent much time coaching these young singers, doubtlessly imparting on them his deeply personal connection to these songs.

Particularly excellent was bass Matt Boehler, whose mischievous and flirtatious presence quickly established a rapport with the audience during the concert’s opening number, Marc Blitzstein‘s “Purest kind of a Guy”.  In the same opening set, entitled “Man to Man”, we are treated to Steven Lutvak‘s “Exit Right”, about the disappointingly narcissistic experience of having sex with a Broadway actor, delivered with naiveté and natural comic timing by tenor Scott Murphee, who also proved his skill in French art song by delivering heartfelt accounts of Poulenc’s “Montparnasse” and Saint-Saens’s “Si vous n’avez rein a me dire”.  Other highlights from the art song sets included baritone Jesse Blumberg‘s agitated yet ethereal rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “At the Ball” and baritone Matthew Worth‘s thundering “Polo” from De Falla’s “Siete canciones populares espanoles”.

I found the non-art song sections of the program to be the most resonant, perhaps because they required no speculation or deep reading to find their connection to gay life.  Vocally, Matthew Worth was a standout.  His young baritone is rich, velvety, and of a good size, yet he was able to scale it down to deliver an appropriately bleak interpretation of Chris De Blasio‘s “Walt Whitman in 1989″, a simple song about the ravages of the AIDS epidemic. Boehler stole the show in the “In Drag” section, which includes a scene from William Bolcom’s Casino Paradise with Mr. Boehler playing the sassy street-smart drag queen Sonny to Jesse Blumberg’s Stanley, the conflicted ex-con fixated on her.

Equally entertaining was Cy Coleman’s “Tennis Duet” between Murphee and Worth, full of suggestive double-entendres and innuendos about “stiff competition” and “rousing rallies”.  More overt than suggestive was the final number, Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top”, which featured all four men and had the audience in stitches.  They were clearly enjoying themselves and each other, and gladly regaled the audience with a lone encore, Smokey Robinson’s “My Guy”.  (I’ll admit I had to Google the lyrics on my iPhone afterwards to figure out what it was.)

This program gave me wonderful insights into the aspects of gay life and culture which I have always felt that my generation has been particularly disconnected from: The coded secrecy of forbidden desire, the AIDS crisis of the 1980′s, and the celebration of Gay Liberation.  The program featured many lesser-known composers and a few lesser works, yet the expert delivery and sincerity of the four singers ensured there were no dull moments in this touching, heartfelt, and above-all entertaining musical journey through the gay life of Steven Blier.

38 comments

  • Don Pasquito says:

    On Tuesday November 30 the New York Festival of Song under artistic director Steven Blier presented their second concert of the season, “Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life,” at Merkin Hall near Lincoln Center. As Blier explained in a lengthy program note that was a performance all on its own, this program had a long gestation and had already been presented, in a slightly different form but with substantially the same complement of singers, at the LGBT Center in Greenwich Village a year ago (Don Pasquito was there).

    A more accurate subtitle for the concert might have been “Songs of Gay Male Life,” as women were completely absent from the program whether as subjects, writers, composers or performers. Aside from that, the program, which had been carefully composed around a set of themes, covered a range of moods, styles, and historic moments, and the material ran the gamut from campy cabaret and musical theater to art songs of high seriousness. Three framing sections consisted mainly of contemporary American theater and cabaret material, while two “intermezzos” (Blier’s word) shifted the focus to European and American art song of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    As usual, Blier was a suave and engaging host who moved easily from accompanying a handsome quartet of young male vocalists on the piano to chatting with the audience about the music they were about to hear. (Blier, 58, who founded the NYFOS with Michael Barrett in 1988, suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy that has left him paralyzed except for his arms and hands, which means that he plays from a wheelchair. His disability has not affected his debonair air nor his accompanying skills.) The four young men assembled for the occasion (Scott Murphee, tenor; Jesse Blumberg and Matthew Worth, baritones; and Matt Boehler, bass) brought a variety of vocal colors and interpretive skills to their wide-ranging material.

    The tall, strapping and bearded Boehler surprised and tickled the audience by bending his resonant “black bass” to the service of several campy character turns. He started the program with “The Purest Kind of a Guy,” a virtually unknown paean to staunch masculinity by gay composer Mark Blitzstein, written for an unproduced show in 1941 and originally sung by Paul Robeson. According to Blier, the song in its original context was more about “Hey, I love you, man” camaraderie than about gay male love, but Blier queered the song with a slight change in the text (substituting “boys” for “girls” in the line “when that kind of a man gives the girls the eye”). He thought Blitzstein wouldn’t mind.

    Boehler’s imposing frame and resonant bottom notes were again put to comic effect in a couple of “drag” numbers later in the program, John Wallowitch’s “Bruce” (“Don’t wear puce, Bruce!”) and a scene from William Bolcom/Arnold Weinstein’s Casino Paradise (1991), in which he played the transvestite lover to the “hero/antihero” played by baritone Jesse Blumberg.

    Several other comic numbers scattered through the program like bonbons kept the mood buoyant when things got too serious. “Exit Right,” a rueful recollection of a one-night stand with a preening actor (words by Mark Campbell, music by Steven Lutvak) was performed with style and a smallish voice by square-jawed blond tenor Scott Murphee. Murphee later joined baritone Matthew Worth in the innuendo-laden Tennis Duet from Cy Coleman & David Zippel’s City of Angels (sample exchange: He 1: “I may lack form and finesse/But I’ll warm up in a jiff.” He 2: “It’s not exciting unless/The competition is stiff.”) In the original show, the duet was between a man and a woman, but once again Blier queered the text by assigning both roles to men.

    The light theater songs alternated with “intermezzos” of art songs by Schubert, Poulenc, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Charles Griffes, Britten and De Falla, composers known or suspected to be gay (the jury is still out on Schubert) who wrote at a time when same-sex desire could not be openly expressed in song texts. Blier therefore chose songs whose text and/or music communicated a complex longing or layered ambivalence that could be considered to be “coded” as gay: Schubert’s “Der Gondelfahrer,” (sung by a male quartet, evoking the common custom of parlor singing in Schubert’s day), Poulenc’s “Montparnasse” (text by Apollinaire), Tchaikovsky’s “At the Ball,” Griffes’ “Evening Song,” Saint-Saëns’ “Si vous n’avez rien à me dire,” and De Falla’s “Polo” (from Siete canciones populares españolas). The strongest impression in this group was made by baritone Matthew Worth, whose impassioned rendition of De Falla’s keening “Polo” almost made one forget that the Seven Popular Songs are nearly always sung by a soprano or mezzo-soprano.

    The songs by 20th century composers reflected both greater experimentation in musical form and an increasing openness in the expression of openly gay themes. Britten’s “Night covers up the rigid land” (1937) is set to a text by W. H. Auden expressing the bitterness of the poet whose lover has deserted him for another man. Though the sex of the lover is unstated in the poem, it is easy to read into it a male identity even without knowing that Auden may well have been reproachfully airing his unrequited crush on Britten. Jesse Blumberg delivered the text and Britten’s spare vocal line in an expressive but somewhat dry baritone.

    The most moving of the 20th century songs was Chris de Blasio and Perry Brass’s “Walt Whitman in 1989.” Written and first performed at the height of the AIDS crisis, and on this night performed with richly resonant tone and carefully modulated emotion by baritone Matthew Worth, the song is a perfect match of text and music, and is surely one of the handful of artworks to have come out of the epidemic that will live on to communicate its devastation to future generations. Brass’s poem, dignified and tender, imagines gay poet Walt Whitman, who nursed wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War, as a ghostly companion to the young men dying of AIDS, accompanying them on their final journey, sailing together “all the way through evening” (an alternate title for the song). Both De Blasio, the composer, and William Parker, the baritone who first performed the song, died of AIDS soon after its first performance.

    The evening concluded with pieces by two of the musical theater’s pre-eminent gay composers, Leonard Bernstein (“To What You Said” from Songfest) and Cole Porter (“You’re the Top,” from Anything Goes, with an additional salty lyric by none other than Irving Berlin). As an encore, the four young men regaled the audience with the Mary Wells doo-wop classic “My Guy,” complete with appropriate gestures.

    “Manning the Canon” will be repeated at Merkin Hall on Thursday December 2.

    • Jay says:

      Boehler once posted on Facebook about how he was able to tell he’d eaten asparagus a couple of hours earlier. He sang Sweeney Todd and Leporello one summer a few years ago and was terrific in both. A very engaging, talented artist.

      Today is Mary Martin’s birthday. She was born December 1, 1913. She was/is one of my all-time favorite “Marys”. (You had to have been out and about a few decades ago to know about the “Mary” thing, as in “Oh, Mary, you should have seen Tebaldi twirl her train in Tosca”.)

      • CruzSF says:

        Jay, that first paragraph makes it look like there’s a connection between eating asparagus and singing Sweeney Todd & Leporello in a single summer (and being terrific at it). At least, at first glance.

        • Jay says:

          Cruz, Matt posted about asparagus quite some time after singing Sweeney (where the fare is meat pies) and Leporello (where he nibbles on purloined poultry).

      • La Cieca says:

        Happy Birthday Mary!

      • Harry says:

        Jay: I surely remember that use of ‘Mary’. Especially for the dumb muscle ‘marys’ poncing about, expecting to be admired. Usually one found their brain capacity was such,the distance for intelligence between ears -was at least a day trip by car

      • MontyNostry says:

        Nothing compared with Zinka kicking her train in Gioconda, surely (having held a floated high B flat interminably).

        • Jay says:

          Zinka’s Gioconda… a dreadnought among gondolas, apparently vocally and dramatically. Even on the recording the B-flat is to keel over for.

          • MontyNostry says:

            … and I love the way, in live recordings, it gets its own round of applause.

          • Jay says:

            I wonder if our doyenne heard Zinka’s Gioconda in New Orleans? If so, he would have been very young.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Was New Orleans the location for the live recording where Zinka sort of falls off the legendary top B flat and then takes it again?

          • Jay says:

            Monty, re: Milanov’s N.O. Gioconda, an Amazon reviewer writes, “She spins the B-flat but breaks it up into two separate notes, giving more accent to the second.”

  • Avantialouie says:

    I attended a donor luncheon at Lyric Opera of Chicago recently. One of my table companions was Matt Boehler (I THINK he was covering the role of Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) What an interesting, entertaining, pleasant young man he is--and handsome to boot. I am certainly glad for his success in this--he had told us that he had it upcoming. I distinctly remember that he had Sarastro in “Die Zauberfloete” upcoming also, but I forget where.

    • CruzSF says:

      It looks like Boehler will appear as Sarastro in late January with the Minnesota Orchestra.

  • brooklynpunk says:

    Two real nice write-ups of what sounded like a show I am VERY SORRY TO HAVE MISSED….!!

    THANKS FOR THE REVIEWS…!!!

    • Gualtier M says:

      You didn’t miss it totally, Brooklynpunk -- it is being repeated tonight at Merkin.

      • brooklynpunk says:

        Thanks, Gualtier…!!

        …I have to babysit my niece tonight…grrrrrrr…….!!!

        (maybe I can slip her a mickey…and sneak out….?-lol…!)

  • Erstegeiger says:

    Scott Murphee or Murphree?
    A google search comes up with MurphRee not Murphee

  • Nerva Nelli says:

    Meanwhile, Dancin’ Danielle is hangin’ with Arianna:

    December 2, 2010 (New York, NY) “Opera’s Coolest Soprano” (New York Times Magazine) Danielle de Niese has just released her first contribution to The Huffington Post, “My Dream On Stage.” De Niese’s youthful yet worldly voice on the wildly popular Internet Newspaper is the latest example of how Classical Music’s “It” Girl is reaching out to a new generation of music lovers.
    ….

    Her post is thoughtful. I wish she would spend more time as a good will ambassador for singing to schoolkids and less time vocalizing inadequately on the important stages her record contact and professional ties afford her…

  • stignanispawn says:

    I was at the butt-numbing four-hour Boheme last evening at the Met, malfunctioning scenery — Montmartre would not rise….Zeffirelli’s revenge for the 2009 Tosca. It made me see the wisdom of newer Met productions like Madama Butterfly that rely on singing rather than scenery. That being said, the cast, Joseph Calleja in particular, was excellent. I hope he brings his Pinkerton to the Met soon.

    • Jay says:

      That Boheme sounds like Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark except you at least had Calleja, rather than Reeve Carney.

  • Bill says:

    Boheme at the Met last night well worth a visit.
    The entire cast was strong, conductor Brignoli began
    a bit too briskly but settled down to a well paced
    Puccini evening. I had seen Stoyanova and Calleja
    together as Mimi and Rudolfo last year in Vienna, and
    they are extraordinarly well matched when singing
    together -- vibratos and tonal niceties in sync. Calleja has a lovely voice, extremely musical, the slightly tight vibrato not at all bothersome -- the wonder of his voice is that every utterance is exactly on pitch -- his acting and reacting to the others is admirable though it was Krassimira Stoyanova from whom one could not keep ones eyes -- every little nuance was riveting to observe -- touching in its simplicity
    yet sufficiently detailed to lend understanding of the role. Her artistry is superb and she has exquisite control of her vocal art though occasionally her highest notes thinned out just slightly. The voice itself is not as rich as that of Netrebko’s Mimi but Stoyanova’s performance is just as valid and effective. Both Stoyanova and Calleja hit the final high note of the first act duet splendidly -- For these two singers alone, a trip to the Met for this Boheme should be encouraged.
    But there were other plusses as well -- Capitanucci
    quite fine as Marcello. Guenther Groissboeck (Austrian) as sonorous a Colline as one is likely to find these days -- a lovely sound (though not large) and a very full and even range -- perhaps a valid upcoming successor to Pape in German roles. The Musetta of Ellie Dehn was also a pleasure -- a stylish lyric voice probably suitable for Mozart -- quite even in all ranges. Dehn played Musetta without the ridiculous excesses of over emoting which some weak voiced Musettas attempt to disguise their vocal deficiencies and inadequacies --
    Only the new Shaunard. Dimitris Tilakos, did not
    specifically impress.

    After a long wait following the first act, a long
    unscheduled intermission was announced as the Met tried to correct some technical problems in preparing for the scene change. There were also scheduled (but overly long) intermissions after the 2nd and 3rd acts -these long breaks broke up the fluidity of the opera deflating the ongoing audience enthusiasm for the performance which, at least, rose to heights not always apparent in the Met’s recent productions of other operas. Give this Boheme cast a try -- there were some empty seats but perhaps due to the stormy weather which may have kept suburbanites out of the city.

    • Gualtier M says:

      I decided to check out this “Boheme” as well. As in “Lucia” there were lots of defections as people’s attention and patience were tested by the long intermissions -- usually longer than the preceding act.

      Calleja and Stoyanova have a loving, caressing way with phrasing that is immensely pleasurable. She isn’t exactly a spring chicken visually but she is a very interesting, finished singer. The voice is rich and complex -- vibrant but plush. Her Mimi was interesting interpretively -- proactive with a sense of humor. Laughing at Rodolfo’s subterfuge with the lost key in Act I, not afraid to flirt and wheedle and rather angry at points in Act III. She has an instrumentalists concept of phrasing music in arcs and knows how to taper and fill out the tone for emphasis. I liked her a lot.

      Calleja has a honeyed quality in his mezza voce singing and is also loving in his shaping of the music. However there is that little bleat -- in some more outspoken passages the tone became recessed and the bleat came to the fore. There seems to be more voice in that throat than he is sharing with us with his current technique. The sound didn’t fill out or gain ring as it ascended or when he sang forte. I didn’t notice this as much with his Duke of Mantua or Nemorino. He is really not much of an actor but very personable on the stage. He clearly has worked on this role and though not a stage animal like Grigolo, Calleja had a number of good dramatic choices and well-executed bits of business.

      Tiliakos has roles like Amonasro and Di Luna in his repertory in Europe -- not a memorable or distinguished voice even for Schaunard at the Met. The Met has lavished singers like Nathan Gunn and Earle Patriarco on this part among others.

      The two things that killed any sense of dramatic and musical pacing and effectiveness were 1) the endless intermissions and 2) the conductor Rizzi Brignoli. Brignoli has good individual ideas but no idea how to create effective arcs -- he loses the forest for the trees. He also leaves the singers to their own devices too often neither effectively leading or following. Both are necessary skills for an opera conductor.

      Things will hopefully get better later in the run.

      BTW: the technical problem was that one of the wagons broke and they had to redress the third act wagon with the second act set and then dress it back again for Act III.

    • scifisci says:

      I thought the conducting ponderous and glacial (did anyone else hear the huge flub at the end of the third act?!)

      stoyanova and calleja sang so beautifully though. Calleja may be my favorite living rodolfo, perhaps along with beczala. His tone and technique is a marvel, all so effortless. Beautiful phrasing as well. Stoyanova has a gorgeous, colorful sound and is certainly an improvement over the uninteresting kovalevska. Groissbock seems to have a substantial voice. Rich, dense, dark yet penetrating. Though the snarl is more suited to hunding than colline….

  • pavel says:

    Judging by a small photo in the latest Opera News, Matthew Worth is quite the handsome fellow. A new member for the League of Barihunks?

    • pavel says:

      A quick search of Parterre shows that I’m not the first to notice Mr. Worth’s… uh, worth.

      • Jay says:

        Worth is my choice for bare-i-hunk.

        • aulus agerius says:

          I just saw Matt Worth in New Orleans as Papageno a couple of weeks ago -- from the second row. He is very handsome indeed. He had on the most unbecoming costume I have ever seen so I don’t know if ‘hunk’ is the appropriate word. He gave a superb performance vocally and acting. The Tamino, Sean Panikkar, was very good also.

          • Jay says:

            If you see Matt as Tarquinius, you’ll get a better idea of his attributes. Sean Panikkar is also easy on the eyes.

          • Jay says:

            P.S. The “Rape” production w/ Worth is in Berkeley March 24-25. Perhaps one or more San Francisco area Parterre posters can/will weigh in on this production.
            http://www.calperfs.berkeley.edu/performances/2010-11/opera/cfo.php

          • CruzSF says:

            Hey, I have a ticket to that! Looking forward to seeing Michael Rice, too. His Gunns were featured in an NPR story about Maazel’s Castleton.

          • Jay says:

            Cruz, I’ll be very interested in your reaction to the Britten piece. Tonight, I’m watching the Silja Makropulos Case, good, but wishing it was Mattila, based on the SF comments to her performance.

            BTW, if you still have my email address, there’s a SFO Fanciulla question I’d like to ask you. If you don’t have it, JJ can give it you. I don’t want to post it here.

          • CruzSF says:

            Hi Jay,

            Rape of Lucretia will be only my second Britten (after Billy Budd). I have no idea about what to expect except that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I wonder if I should prepare myself with recordings and readings before the performance. I’d like to go in cold, just for the excitement of it, but doing so failed me miserably with the recent Werther.

            As I am apparently solipsistic (as a hooter recently called me), I’m sure I’ll post my impressions of the opera, and Mr. Worth, when the time comes.

            BTW, I just sent you an email …

  • Gualtier M says:

    Spotted in the audience: Mark Morris and Pavol Breslik (with an older gentleman companion). Breslik had a five o’clock shadow and neck scarf.