• Alexis Rodda

New York Festival of Song Creates Intimacy and Joy in a Series of Lesser-Known Rachmaninoff Songs

The New York Festival of Song, founded in 1988 by Michael Barrett and Steven Blier, offers unique evenings of songs rarely heard, or songs rarely heard in conjunction with one another.

Unlike many traditional song concerts, Barrett and Blier program concerts with a story arc or theme, engaging the audience in meaningful music-listening and story synthesis. Their upcoming concert, simply called Schubert/Beatles, will feature compositions from both Franz Schubert as well as the Beatles, illustrating the different ways in which these two musical periods were very much their very own “smash hits” during their own respective time periods.


The New York Festival of Song opened their season this past November 10th with From Russia to Riverside Drive: Rachmaninoff and Friends, a warm, intelligent evening of chamber music featuring the works of Rachmaninoff but also some of his contemporaries with jazz leanings, such as George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. Held in Merkin Hall, artistic director Michael Barrett brought a friendly intimacy to the evening that made it difficult not to leave the concert smiling.


Featuring soprano Dina Kuznetsova and baritone Shea Owens, the program began by alternating various Rachmaninoff songs, many of which are rarely performed and thus all the more pleasurable to hear. Kuznetsova has a magnetic charisma and ease onstage that allowed her to express the full range of emotions of each of her songs. Her vocal ability was equally matched, her voice a lustrously dark timbre. She made great use of dynamic contrast to illustrate the highs and lows of the music, her voice at its most thrilling in moments of fuller volume. At times, she erred on the side of too pianissimo for a voice of her size, causing uncharacteristic breaks in her tone. However, these moments were fleeting and didn’t distract from what was an excellent and impassioned performance.





Shea Owens’ interpretations feel slightly academic at times, but he gains energy as the evening goes on, especially in his more comedic moments. His vocal quality is stunning, with all the richness of a well-rounded baritone voice but with a striking brightness that thrills, particularly in his upper range. The Russian repertoire sits well in his voice, and he has an easy quality to his vocalization, yet he possesses a sound that’s not without gravitas and substance.

Barrett and Blier accompany on piano with joy and gusto, appearing to deeply enjoy their music making with an enthusiasm so genuine it was impossible not to become absorbed in their warm-toned playing. Blier paused between songs to give an affectionate and humorous play-by-play of Rachmaninoff’s personal and compositional history, which deeply enriched the listening experience. Blier managed to make the evening akin to a casual evening listening to music in one’s living room with friends, while never allowing the excellence of the musical quality to waver.


Dalit Warshaw joined in on several songs on the thereminist, an instrument Blier explained never quite took off in popularity as expected in Rachmaninoff’s time. Warshaw plays this fascinating instrument with tenderness and sensitivity, her precision and focus mesmerizing.


The feeling that the entirety of a cast of artists is enjoying their craft all at once in concert collaboration seems an increasingly rare experience in recital attendance. The New York Festival of Song manages to highlight the joy in this series of rare songs from Rachmaninoff and beyond, providing an evening of delightful musical excellence and true artistic pleasure.


Originally published at: http://www.operatoday.com/content/2015/12/the_new_york_fe.php


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© 2019 by ALEXIS RODDA