National Sawdust 5 Boroughs Music Fest

New York's Composers a Riot of Song

By: - Nov 17, 2017

Wonderful vocal talents abound in the five boroughs of New York. We can hear them performing song recitals, opera and symphonic music. Jesse Bloomberg, the artistic director for the 5 Boroughs Music Festival, brings together a sampling of composers who are tucked into the nooks and crannies of our city. Assigning them the subject of the city unleashes their spirited take on New York. Songs ranged from poetic evocation to the tiny drama about a struggling barista which was inspired by Monteverdi.

In addition to giving us the city in so many different aspects, the composers and their librettists (sometimes one in the same) provide a virtual riot of form at the National Sawdust in Brooklyn.

Composer Libby Larsen led off with four runners urging each other on, speaking through the voice of their legs and  hearts, passing off encouragement one to the other in a rollicking quartet. Singers Justine Aronson, Amanda Crider, William Ferguson and Christopher Dylan Herbert worked up a virtual sweat as they kept up with Erika Switzer at the piano driving them forward. Switzer is at once a sympathetic and defining accompanist.  

A deep take on the Coney Island Cyclone by Herschel Garfein recalled the screams echoing in the ear forever against the midnight blue sky hanging over the Atlantic. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge questioned why we ride this death defying, looping train. She pictures the door of a cab latched as we swoop off to remind us that the end is inevitable, no matter what we do to evade it. So why not embrace the feeling, which also fortuitously resembles sex? Gifted cellist Sophie Shao provided an additional singing line as she accompanied. Often her presence added the special musical voice of that instrument.

Contributors were offered accompaniment on piano and/or cello. One composer wanted to work alone with the cello, to create a duet with Amanda Crider in Losaida, a love song for the Lower East Side of poet Bimbo Rivas.

A perfectly constructed comic/tragic vignette dramatizes a barista who has lost his job as hip Brooklyn moves out from Williamsburg to Bushwick.  Tenor William Ferguson was at once hurt, angry and funny as he consigned himself to the declining coffee icon, Starbucks. Composer Conrad Cummings based the work on Monteverdi, and used a trio, as did his predecessor, to set the scene and sympathize.

Specific locations were colored by notes and words. Riverdale, Sputen Duyvil, the Staten Island Ferry in which two people pass like ships in the night were all imagined in song.

Lembit Beecher, the only composer to admit that he launched his career considerably after the usual start age of 11, offered an edited version of real testimony given in a trial involving perhaps four people beating up one. Beecher's music is a language of its own. It feels like speech and accompanies the words, which twist and turn to avoid what actually happened. Librettist Liza Balkan edited her own trial testimony to create a disturbing moment in which truth is difficult to confront. In choosing to use both piano and cello, Beecher is able to use the piano as background, the hum drum of court proceedings. The cello becomes a second voice. Hai-Ting Chinn captured the confusion of truth and the pressure to protect in an urgent mezzo that perfectly articulated the stumbling language made into music. "No" dominates.

Thomas Bagwell bravely rose to every situation an accompanist can face, and beyond, as he sometimes plucked the piano strings, passing off beats with the cello and on to the singer in a surprising rhythmic confection. He played as Jorell Wiliams sang of a homeless man in the jagged dissonances of Laura Kaminsky. As the final notes sounded the familiar ‘America the Beautiful,’ you knew it was not.

The finale of the evening was a hoot, with all eight singers heralding the clock in the center of the central hall at Grand Central Station. Bora Joon composed.  Who could ask for anything more?