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Review: Anything You Can Do, The Mezzos of NY Festival of Song's Gala Can Do Better

Raehann Bryce-Davis, Sasha Cooke, Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, Isabel Leonard, Kate Lindset, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Frederica von Stade in the Spotlight

Review: Anything You Can Do, The Mezzos of NY Festival of Song's Gala Can Do Better
Mezzos Take Control at 2021 NYFOS

Some years ago, I interviewed a major singer whose cavernous sound seemed to grow deeper and deeper by the year--the kind of voice that could easily be termed "mezzo" or "contralto." How should I refer to her, I asked? She told me to call her "a girl singer."

Any of the wonderful mezzos who appear on the NY Festival of Song's (NYFOS) "How About Those Mezzos!" gala could easily be called "a girl singer" --as in "the females who used to sing just about anything with the Big Bands in the '40s"--as well under their usual hats as opera singers.

The proof: There wasn't an aria to be heard on the program (which will be available on demand through the end of the month), co-hosted by NYFOS chief Steven Blier and mezzo Rebecca Jo Loeb, an up-and-comer to watch. (Blier also supplied the piano accompaniment on a half dozen entries.)

They sang everything from Edith Piaf, Reynaldo Hahn and Alberto Ginastera to Antonio Carlos Jobim, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Irving Berlin, all in styles that sounded little like anything you might hear at the Met, Covent Garden or the Wiener Staatsoper. There were songs in French, English, Brazilian and Spanish, with the singers at home in everything they sang.

Review: Anything You Can Do, The Mezzos of NY Festival of Song's Gala Can Do Better
From top left: DiDonato, Graves, von Stade, ​​​​​Bryce-Davis,
Loeb, Lindsey, Cooke, Leonard and Graham

Kicking off the concert was Isabel Leonard, who was the most charming and irresistible that I can ever recall, with the Edith Piaf classic, "La vie en rose." Piaf wrote the song with Louisguy and Leonard delivered it in a most understated, lovely way. Later in the program, Leonard showed off her considerable comic chops, in an Irving Berlin classic, playing Zoom with all her cohorts from the concert.

Next came Sasha Cooke, who I've heard in everything from the premiere of the contemporary AS ONE (Kaminsky, Reed, Campbell) to Mahler's DAS LIED VON DER ERDE with the San Francisco Symphony. Here, at Maestro Blier's request (and with his arrangement), she turned to the Rodgers & Hammerstein standard from OKLAHOMA!, "Out of My Dreams [and into your arms]," purely and simply, with not a shred of artifice. All that was missing was the choreography--and unfortunately, Agnes de Mille is not around to provide.

Co-host Loeb turned to the bossa nova classic, "Corcovado," by Jobim, also in Blier's arrangement. The mezzo accompanied herself on the guitar in a rendition that was at once calm and peaceful, sending out a message of well-being and delight. Another voice to make you sit up and take notice belonged to Raehann Bryce-Davis who chose "March Moon," the Hale Smith setting of a Langston Hughes work, dark and warm, with the singer fully connected to the piece, accompanied by Esme Wong.

A pair of songs by Kurt Weill were catnip for Kate Lindsay, who recently was Nerone to Joyce DiDonato's Agrippina at the Met. "That's Him" is from ONE TOUCH OF VENUS (lyrics by Ogden Nash), a dreamy ode to love that really can't be. The more famous "The Ballad of Jennie," from LADY IN THE DARK, has clever lyrics by Ira Gershwin that Lindsey pulled off exactly right, sophisticated and quite funny all at once.

I noticed that Susan Graham was born in Roswell, NM and it seems a fitting birthplace for someone who has an unearthly quality to her singing--and, simultaneously, a grand sense of humor. She's known for her affinity for French repertoire (along with their American counterparts) and started off here with a couple of cuts taken from her CD of French operetta highlights, "C'est l'amour, c'est la vie," with Jeremy Frank on piano.

She started with "J'ai deux amants," which, basically, tells how stupid men are, in impeccable French style--which is the only way to sing the song and make it worth hearing. She did it in spades. It was paired with the song that gave the album its name, with a Brazilian beat that she pulled off charmingly.

Denyce Graves who is perhaps best known for her stirring Carmens at the Met--most recently she was Isabel Leonard's mother in the opera version of MARNIE, by Nico Muhly and Nicolas Wright, based on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham (which also inspired the Hitchcock thriller)--sang the jazz standard, "Guess Who I Saw Today?" by Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd. It was perfectly executed with just enough wistfulness to bring a lump to the listener's throat.

Accompanying herself on the piano, Joyce DiDonato sounded very soprano-ish in Alberto Ginastera's jazzy, sweet yet mournful "Cancion al Arbol del Olvido" ("The Song of the Tree of Forgetting"). She followed that with "A Chloris," an early 20th century song by Reynaldo Hahn to a 17th century text by Theophile de Viau and sounding very much like it came from some other time and place.

The last soloist on the program was hardly the least: Frederika von Stade. While I've heard her most recently in some contemporary works, there's been nothing quite so melodic as Lenoir's "Parlez moi d'amour" and I was wondering what she'd sound like. I had no reason to fear. Her voice was a pure as singers decades her junior and her delivery, well, was all one could hope for, filled with charm and delight, accompanied by Jim Meredith.

The program, directed and edited by Jonathan Estabrooks, ended with a great treat: All the singers taking part in a sparkling version of "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" by Irving Berlin, from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.

The lyrics were tweaked a bit to fit the concert's theme, and the singers seemed to be having a ball with the false one-upmanship that the song trades in--and so, I might add, did this member of the audience. I particularly enjoyed the "Anything you can sing, I have sung longer" riff between Leonard and Graham and the faux-witchiness in the "Anything you can sing, I can sing better" exchange between DiDonato and von Stade.

Review: Anything You Can Do, The Mezzos of NY Festival of Song's Gala Can Do Better
Renee Fleming jokingly pleads
for "showing some love for sopranos."

One other brief, show-stopping segment didn't highlight a piece of music. Rather, it featured soprano Renee Fleming, congratulating NYFOS on more than 30 years of celebrating "an art form we love and adore." She went on to lodge a mock complaint about all the mezzos being featured, and asking that the Festival consider featuring sopranos next year. "Nobody ever gives us the spotlight," she moaned. "We're almost as overlooked as tenors. ...Please don't forget about these lesser known voice types who need love, too." And she delivered it all with a straight face. Three cheers!

In all, a delightful evening and a fine introduction for those who aren't familiar with the work of the New York Festival of Song.

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From This Author - Richard Sasanow