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November 24, 2011

Being thankful for a concert by the New York Festival of Song

For no good reasons -- I'd like to blame my intense work schedule, but I suspect I'd have to cite my faulty time management, too -- I never managed to write about last week's concert by the New York Festival of Song at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center., which has all sorts of enticing attractions for its 10th anniversary season.

(Maybe I was subconsciously rebelling against the parking ticket I got while at the performance. It had been so long since I attended a Clarice Smith event that I didn't notice they had installed one of those infernal pay station systems in the garage).

So please indulge me now, on Thanksgiving Day, for I was mighty grateful for the opportunity to experience "Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life" -- easily one of the enjoyable concert's I've heard all year. I was disappointed that the house was not full, but that was the only down note of the evening.

If you haven't encountered the New York Festival of Song before, do make an effort to catch this clever and consistently engaging ensemble. In our area, UM and Wolf Trap have been the closest to Baltimore they've performed, as far as I know. I think folks in Charm City are missing out on something big. (How about it, Shriver Hall Concert Series?)

Coming up on its 25th anniversary season, NYFOS was founded by pianists Michael Barrett and Steven Blier and has done exceptional work. From the beginning, NYFOS has showcased a remarkably rich sampling of the vast song repertoire, across centuries and cultures; from the most terribly serious to the most light-hearted (and, in last week's program, the most deliciously camp -- Cole Porter's "You're the Top" and Mary Wells' "My Guy" took on a whole new life).

Blier was joined by four well-matched singers for the Clarice Smith concert. The first time I heard the pianist Blier play -- ages ago, it seems now, at a festival in Boulder, Colo. -- I was ...

very impressed with his musicality and his charm.

Those attributes have remained over the years, even as he has had to deal with a form of muscular dystrophy that greatly limits his mobility. There is no way to miss Blier's situation, or to be affected by the process of seeing him be lifted from a wheelchair to a seat at the piano.

I imagine he hates any mention of this, but I do so only to add that Blier's determination to serve the music is what hits you hardest at a concert. That commitment, not to mention his disarming manner when he introduces the songs, creates an intimate bond with an audience that really does deserve the overused word "special."

I suppose some folks might feel put off by the idea of hearing "songs of gay life." But the neat thing about this program was how non-exclusive it was. It provided a kind of music and social history lesson, delivered with great sensitivity and lightened by some terrific humor.

When you're gay, especially in the early years of your awareness, you hang tightly onto any information about other people like you, especially important people from fields that you care strongly about. If you're a gay classical music lover, learning about, say, Tchaikovsky is a big deal, for example.

Blier's program included nods to Tchaikovsky and several other gay composers, among themSaint-Saens, Poulenc, Griffes and Britten, using their songs with texts that can easily be read in a very revealing way when you consider issues of sexual orientation.

One of my favorite examples on the program was Tchaikovsky's "At the Ball," exquisitely sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg at the UM concert. Here, the sense of a hidden message in the words became palpable in a way it might not be in another context: "By mere chance .. I caught sight of you ... I was entranced by your trim figure and you pensive manner, your laugh, at once sad and merry ... Sometimes ... late at night (as) I drift into sleep .. I do not know whether I love you, but it seems that I do."

Grouped by theme, the songs were imaginatively chosen to make a point, sometimes quite subtly (Schubert's "Der Gondelfahrer," de Fallas' "Polo"), sometimes with all guns blazing (John Wallowitch's "Bruce). Everything was delivered with style. Highlights were many. Among them:

Blumberg's warm-toned account of "Is It Dirty," Christopher Berg's haunting setting of a Frank O'Hara text; tenor Scott Murphee's elegant phrasing in Poulenc's "Montparnasse"; baritone Timothy McDevitt's eloquence in Chris De Blassio's "Walt Whitman in 1989." And then there was Matt Boehler, who put his vibrant bass to highly expressive use in songs both serious and, um, gay.

Cool concert, clever concept. And you just know there's plenty more where that came from. I'm ready for the sequel.

I found this vintage video clip of Tchaikovsky's "At the Ball" and enjoyed it even more with the memory of last week's NYFOS event, so I thought I would share it:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:07 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


You were quite right. It was a wonderful, sparkling evening of light, witty, songs. Steven Blier is always a charm. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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