NEW YORK CITY: Harlem Renaissance
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In Review > Concerts and Recitals

"Harlem Renaissance"

New York Festival of Song | Merkin Concert Hall

New York Festival of Song first presented its “Harlem Renaissance” program fourteen years ago. It was a hit, and went on tour to several cities. At the time, Darius de Haas, James Martin, and Dana Hanchard were its stars. On December 9, “Harlem Renaissance” was brought back, and this time de Haas and Martin shared the Merkin Concert Hall stage with soprano-on-the-rise Julia Bullock. Steven Blier performed most of the piano accompaniments (spelled occasionally by Michael Barrett) and he also served as the evening’s very informed guide through Harlem’s glory years of the 1920s. It was a heady mix, with songs by the likes of Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, William Grant Still, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington and more, interspersed with brief readings of poems by Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston. 

The song list included a few well-known favorites, like “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” but for the most part this was a parade of buried treasures, expertly performed. One of the most memorable was a Eubie Blake piano solo by Blier that opened the program. Entitled “Capricious Harlem,” it depicted a blissful, bluesy walk through Harlem on a Sunday morning. Blier gracefully brought out the Debussyean swirls of its melodic line and chord structures. Blake was also interpreted by the versatile Bullock, growling out the risqué “I’m Craving for that Kind of Love” and “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More,” and by de Haas and Martin, joining forces for a jaunty “You’re Lucky to Me.”  De Haas wrapped his voluptuous, rangy tenor around Strayhorn’s “Day Dream” in a manner that seemed to spin off into another world, and Martin created a dreamy mood of a different kind with William Grant Still’s “The Breath of a Rose.” He also allowed his voice to bloom beautifully in the arching melody of Florence Prices’s “Song to the Dark Virgin,” which was accompanied by Michael Barrett. Martin, a true showman, also gave a winning, Broadway-style rendition of Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” and incorporated some stylish period dance moves into the breaks in Charles “Luckey” Roberts’s “Mo’ Lasses.”

Bullock, with her endearing stage presence and flexible soprano, made an exquisite moment out of Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.” She also unleashed real reserves of vocal power in Hall Johnson’s arrangement of the spiritual “I’ve Heard of a City Called Heaven.”

De Haas, a jazz singer beloved by cabaret fans because he knows his way around a lyric, gave a thrilling turn to Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” with his voice winding its way into a heart-stopping, caressing falsetto. Blier, at the piano, matched him note for sensuous note.

These were just the highlights of an evening that actually could have been trimmed a bit. Once past the two-hour mark, it started to seem like too much of a good thing. The sold-out crowd, however, was vociferous in its applause at the curtain call. spacer 



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