In Review > Concerts and Recitals

"Schubert and the Beatles"

Theo Hoffman, Paul Appleby, Sari Gruber, Andrew Garland & Steven Blier, Michael Barrett | New York Festival of Song

ON DECEMBER 8, the New York Festival of Song, headed by artistic director Steven Blier and associate artistic director Michael Barrett, presented a delightful anomaly—a concert entitled “Schubert and the Beatles.” The innovative program showcased some energetic artists in fine crossover form and demonstrated abundant enthusiasm for the music of both the early-nineteenth and late-twentieth centuries.

Modern Beatles adaptations are almost rampant: in the last ten years alone, we’ve seen Julie Taymor’s film Across the Universe, Cirque du Soleil’s Love show, and the West End and Broadway musical Let It Be. But NYFOS’s specific lineup of German lieder interspersed with Beatles songs reflecting themes similar to those of the Schubert required another dimension of research and musical savvy. “Waldesnacht” (In the forest) was followed by “Norwegian Wood;” “Der Wanderer an den Mond” (The wanderer and the moon) was paired with a duet version of “She’s Leaving Home.” Blier noted that the idea for the pairing was spearheaded in part by performer Theo Hoffman, who not only lent his lush baritone to an expert rendition of “Du bist die Ruh,” but also accompanied himself—on the guitar—while he did so. As unconventional as this was, it’s hard to imagine, after Hoffman’s rendering, that Schubert could have willed it any other way. Hoffman played guitar for most of the Beatles selections, and also lent a cool falsetto to high harmonies. He was a star of the evening, as was tenor Paul Appleby, who had the most work to do across the classical and pop repertoire—and for good reason. Appleby has a wonderfully modifiable tenor, able to be light and boyish in the desperation of “Alinde” and warm and hefty in the longing of “Yesterday.” (And never were the lyrics of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison ever sung with such crisp diction.)

The two other singers included Sari Gruber, strongest in her higher register in “Im Frühling,” and Andrew Garland, a baritone of strength and vocal opulence. His forte was in his phrasing and ability to ride on his breath, as in “An Schwager Kronos,” and “If I Fell.” Blier and Barrett, attired in matching Beatles socks, provided expert accompaniment for the selections at the piano.

Special mention must be given to the violin work of Charles Yang, who provided smart, informed playing to a number of the songs and lieder, as well as delivered the evening’s showstopper performance. Yang used a looper to live-record his own string playing, meant to imitate the sounds of birds and nature, and played those “chirps and whistles” under his rendition of the Beatles’s “Blackbird.” After his solo, the audience very audibly gasped. 

This program’s success was keyed to the ideal way Blier had arranged the Beatles’s selections for the sweet spots in each singer’s voice. The songs somehow were all transformed into the finest eleven o’clock ballads any classic musical ever heard, proving that the Beatles were a heck of a lot more than the average pop musicians. Each of the performers invested the Beatles’s text with as much sheer passion and joy as they brought to the Schubert lieder. Perhaps these NYFOS artists really want to be rock stars. But after this concert, why choose?  —Maria Mazzaro 

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