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From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends | New York Festival of Song
NEW YORK CITY
Merkin Concert Hall
THE NEW YORK FESTIVAL OF SONG opened its twenty-eighth season on November 10 at Merkin Concert Hall with an evening that exemplified what they do best. Entitled From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends, the program traced the song literature of the Russian composer-pianist from his adolescence to his American expatriation. As always, NYFOS artistic director Steven Blier and associate artistic director Michael Barrett provided the excellent accompaniment, alternating from two pianos. Soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Shea Owens were the singers, and the bonus of the evening was several numbers performed by thereminist Danit Warshaw. It’s not often that we get to hear theremin music performed live, and seeing Warshaw play this upright instrument without actually touching it—controlling the emanating electronic sound waves with her graceful gestures—was an otherworldly, somewhat spooky experience.
Narrating, as usual, from the piano, Blier painted a touching picture of the sensitive giant of a composer (he stood 6’6”), who was prone to nervous breakdowns and never wrote another song after fleeing his homeland during the revolutions of 1917. But that small song output was as rhapsodic and haunting as one would expect. Blier pointed out, bittersweetly, that Rachmaninoff was “an artist who is often seen as too beautiful to be good or too beautiful to be important.”
Dina Kuznetsova bought native Russian authority and intense involvement to her contribution, not to mention opulent tone. Her woeful extended melismas that capped “Harvest of Sorrow” were deeply touching, and her “Melody” was rapturously sung to Blier’s rippling, Debussyian accompaniment.
Shea Owens, though still a young man, seemed to walk onto the stage an artist fully formed; perhaps even a star. He exuded confidence and charisma that put the audience immediately at ease, and unfurled a handsome baritone with a shining top. Coupled to this was an unerring interpretive sense that seemed to encompass every mood, including that of Rachmaninoff’s lone comic song, “Were You Hiccupping?” A particular standout was “Beloved, Let Us Fly,” which he built on waves of full-throated passion and ended with a seductive croon. He also gave a fun, unmannered rendition of the Gershwins’ “Little Jazz Bird” (1924), a song Rachmaninoff would have likely heard and enjoyed soon after his arrival in New York.
The concert closed, appropriately, with the familiar “Vocalise” performed as an ensemble number by all of the artists. And the encore they offered was even more appropriate: “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s 1945 pop favorite based on the main theme of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. One left with the feeling that Rachmaninoff was a composer who had something to offer everyone. —Eric Myers
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