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From Lieder To Latin: The New York Festival Of Song

The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) is known for its high-energy ensemble productions, with repertoire ranging from art song and opera to Broadway and the blues. The New York institution was born in 1988, when pianists Steve Blier and Michael Barrett happened to be talking about the state of the vocal recital. They both thought it could be much more interesting and engaging. Barrett says they decided to expand the repertoire.

"We thought, there are 5 million songs we don't even know that are as good as these lovely things of Schubert and Faure and Debussy everyone keeps singing over and over and over," Barrett says. "We don't want to throw those out. But what about all this amazing stuff?"

Using their encyclopedic knowledge of song repertoire, Barrett and Blier put together a popular series of concerts that were grouped around different themes such as guilty pleasures, love and betrayal, and the afterlife.

You might hear some German Lieder, or Latin American music, or an opera singer getting down and dirty. And you might hear all of them on the same program.

"That's been a really important part of NYFOS, is the range of it," Barrett says. "It's not just American song. We're Americans, it's what we do: contemporary music, the American Songbook, all of this stuff. But also, our motto is 'No song is safe from us.' "

Spontaneous And Entertaining

Barrett and Blier both chat frequently with the audience from their twin pianos. Blier says he tells the singers to reach out to the audience.

"I always tell the singers, 'If you see bald spots and bouffants, you have failed. If they are buried in their program book, they are trying to figure out what you're doing. You have got to give it to 'em so that they are completely engaged,' " he says.

Last week, Blier and Barrett rehearsed their latest program in Blier's Upper West Side apartment. The atmosphere was loose and comfortable — there were snacks in the kitchen, lots of cups of tea and a humidifier puffing in the background while the singers took their turns around the baby grand. They were working on an evening called Night and Day/USA.

Blier says the program explores how people's work lives measure up — or don't — with their dreams.

"I thought that would be a great idea for a program — a kind of portrait of working and dreaming, and lots of different kinds of people working and lots of different kinds of dreams," he says.

One of the singers is soprano Sari Gruber. She's done five NYFOS programs and says they're very different from the opera and oratorio work she normally does.

"It's usually about 10 days that you have to put these shows together and perform them," Gruber says. "And I look at them personally as the most terror and fun you're going to have in 10 days that season. It is just sheer joy to make music this way, to share with your colleagues and figure out different ways to do things."

Having an operatic baritone sing a Tom Waits song is just one different way to do things, and James Martin is doing just that in the Night and Day program. It makes him a little nervous, but he says he knows it'll go over.

"The NYFOS audience is just fantastic," he says. "They're willing to go on the journey with us. So they're as fit for fun and terror as we are."

Blier says he enjoys seeing how the different pieces in the program fit.

"The juxtaposition of songs is a lot like cooking," Blier says. "Things go together and explode into flavors and explode into stories."

Night and Day/USA will be performed Thursday night at Merkin Concert Hall. NYFOS' new radio series, No Song Is Safe From Us, can be heard on WFMT in Chicago and online.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.