Saturday, December 12, 2015

Music Review—New York Festival of Song's "Schubert/Beatles"

New York Festival of Song
December 8, 2015
Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY
nyfos.org

Charles Yang, Theo Hoffman and Sari Gruber perform "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (photo: Cherylynn Tsushima)  
The enduring greatness of the Beatles has many contributing factors, including their being in the right place at the right time or their pairing with producer George Martin in the studio to create their profoundly influential recordings. 

But the main reason is the songwriting genius of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and, to a lesser extent, George Harrison). No less an authority than Tony Palmer, then critic of The Observer, in his review of the "White Album" in 1968 called John and Paul the best songwriters since Schubert. Steven Blier, artistic director of New York Festival of Song, appeared to take Palmer at his word for his latest program, pairing the Beatles with Franz Schubert for a performance on December 8th, the 35th anniversary of John Lennon's murder.

I wouldn't envy Blier sifting through so many songs by such prolific composers: Schubert wrote 613 (the current agreed-upon number) before he died at age 31, while the Beatles wrote and recorded 212 or so. For Schubert/Beatles, Blier programmed nine Schubert lieder and twelve Lennon-McCartney (or Harrison) songs, pairing them by a—sometimes arcane or tenuous—link, like the opening salvo of the Beatles' "The Word" and Schubert's "Licht und Liebe" ("Light and Love"). These songs about love were an amusing way to begin, especially when the evening's four singers launched into a joyous singalong of Lennon's final line, "Say the word: love."

Onstage were soprano Sari Gruber, tenor Paul Appleby, baritones Andrew Garland and Theo Hoffman, virtuoso violinist Charles Yang and pianists Blier and partner Michael Barrett, all performing tunes by an early 19th century genius and mid/late 20th century geniuses, the latter heard in Blier’s inventive arrangements for piano and occasional violin or guitar. 

Creative juxtapositions—which Blier engagingly discussed onstage between numbers—included Schubert’s “Im Walde” (“In the Forest”) with the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” and the final pairing of Schubert's last song “Dien Taubenpost” ("The Pigeon-post") and Lennon’s own summing-up (at age 25!), “In My Life.”

Musical highlights were many. Appleby found the tender longing in Lennon’s “Julia” as Yang alternated between plucking his violin like a guitar and traditional bowing; Appleby did the same on McCartney’s exquisitely sad “For No One” as Yang tastefully fiddled the famous French horn solo. Gruber made “Norwegian Wood” her own as a classic torch song, although the switching the genders in Lennon’s original lyrics killed his punning line, “this bird had flown." 

Appleby and Garland ended their elegantly harmonized duet on “If I Fell”—nearly equaling John and Paul on the original recording—with a cute holding of hands to signal a hidden attraction between singers, while Gruber and Garland alternated verses on “She’s Leaving Home” to expertly convey the simultaneous yearning and generation-gap chiding of the Beatles’ original. Mention must also be made of Yang’s solo tour-de-force, an instrumental “Blackbird” consisting entirely of his own multi-tracked electric violin with heavy use of pedals,  sometimes obscuring McCartney’s gorgeous melody and other times enhancing it.

The concert's ultimate highlight juxtaposed Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” (“You Are Repose”), played haltingly and achingly by Theo Hoffman with only his plaintive acoustic guitar, and a stark version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” emotionally sung by Hoffman and Gruber, with Hoffman’s guitar, Blier’s piano and Yang’s plucked violin making it sound remarkably like Harrison’s own demo on The Beatles' Anthology 3.

I don’t want to slight the other Schubert songs, all beautifully sung and featuring Barrett’s sensitive piano accompaniment. But this was a Beatles night—the very date marked it as such—and it showed that Blier could program a Schubert/Beatles night every season and not run out of material for years. There aren't many other master composers one can say that about.

December 8, 2015
Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY
nyfos.org

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