NYFOS Next–Bright Sheng & Friends
by Sherri Rase
The New York Festival of Song’s NYFOS Next’s final installment for 2015, “Bright Sheng and Friends,” at OPERA America’s National Opera Center, at 330 Seventh Avenue, was especially well attended for the aftermath of yet another weather event. Many lovers of contemporary classical music were on hand, including most of the featured composers who were sharing the program with Bright Sheng.
NYFOS Associate Artistic Director and Co-Founder Michael Barrett and composer Sheng have been friends for a very long time, meeting in the late 1980s, when Sheng first arrived in the United States from Shanghai. Sheng spoke very fondly of George Perle, who was his first composition teacher, as well as Leonard Bernstein, who introduced him to Barrett. Bernstein was Sheng’s final teacher and both Perle and Bernstein were beautifully represented in the evening’s progam.
Leading off with Annie Rosen, mezzo-soprano, and Shea Owens, baritone, we were treated to “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight,” from Bernstein’s “Arias and Barcarolles.” Joyfully playing the “children,” Barrett and Sheng were gleeful in their roles, and Rosen and Owens spun out a story of love, marriage, and partnership that was a lovely beginning to the evening, as well as Bernstein’s “valentine” to his friends the Webbs. Rosen’s rich mezzo combined with Owens honeyed baritone to delightful result.
Our first new friend of the evening was Sheng’s student Iman Habibi, whose songs “False Morning” and “The River Lip” are settings of Edward FitzGerald’s translations of Omar Khayyám’s poetry. Habibi told us that this poetry is at the very heart of Persian mysticism. FitzGerald’s translations were so well-received, he said, that Khayyám’s countrymen went back to his poetry, inspiring a renaissance for the work of this philosopher, mathematician, and poet. Every heart in the room was yearning for spring and warmth by the time it was through and found a new friend in Habibi.
Brandon Scott Rumsey used two modern poems–“Planting Tulips”, with text by Neil Aitken and “Peaches in November,” by August Kleinzahler—as part of a song cycle commissioned by tenor Jason Weisinger. Rosen gave these works their New York premier in their first mezzo outing. The first was dark and thoughtful and the second features an a cappella opening of evocative and beautiful music. Leann Osterkamp played for Rosen in this cycle that explores Rumsey’s fascination with what Nature teaches us about ourselves and our own cycles.
Owens returned with the premiere of Matthew Bridgham’s “sweetfeather.” It is a delightful work with the feel of a lullaby and a broad dynamic range. Owens displayed very sweet tones in the upper register, handled with great sensitivity, and great richness in mid and lower ranges.
Matthew Tommasini’s brace of songs included text from Leopold Lugones and Rubén Dario, whose writings are precursors of Gabriel García Márquez. Tommasini and Lugones’ “Olas gris” is a rain song that has a Latin-mysticism dream quality, made richer by Rosen’s mezzo. Tommasini and Dario’s “Nocturno” is a dramatic mini-opera with a recitative and what the composer calls a “ghost aria” that had a feel of a “Twilight Zone” episode–exotic, atmospheric, intense.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Perle, the centennial of whose birth occurs this May, was represented by a setting of Emily Dickinson’s “The Heart Asks Pleasure First” that was well done and, as interpreted by Rosen, well sung. The music has a sense of quietude above while thoughts are swirling–felt but not seen below the surface of the vocal line.
The final jewel of the evening was an excerpt from Sheng’s opera in progress “Dream of the Red Chamber,” an adaptation of perhaps the most popular novel from more than 2000 years of Chinese literature. We were treated to a scene with Amy Owens, soprano, and Mingjei Lei, tenor, as the young lovers during their first meeting and their subsequent limerance and fall into love. The opera is slated to debut in 2016 and, judging from this first taste, it will be a force majeure.
Visit www.NYFOS.org to make reservations for the next NYFOS installment–“Bel Canto/Can Belto”—with up-and-coming stars, with performances at Caramoor and Merkin Hall on March 15 and 17 respectively. Seats are selling quickly, but there’s still time to get a good spot for you and your friends. I’ll see you there!