The Five Borough Songbook enjoyed an auspicious premiere earlier this month at the Galapagos Art Space, in that Brooklyn neighborhood designated as DUMBO, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Underpass. From twenty of the day’s significant composers, the Songbook gathers twenty songs, each expressing facets of New York City life. As happened, one of the commissioned artists was unable to make the deadline; a twentieth song should be added at the next performance in Queens on November 12. The extant cycle is of conspicuous artistic merit.
The Galapagos Art Space’s interior – with its seating islands arranged over an indoor pool – served as a symbolic representation of New York City’s geography, each borough, at least to some extent, separated from the others by water. Ricky Ian Gordon’s O City of Ships stirringly launched the cycle on its energizing course and then was followed by Christopher Tignor’s more intimate Secret Assignation. Tignor included in the program notes instructions to read silently along, at appropriate moments, with parenthetical unsung passages in Lewis Warsh’s text – difficult to accomplish because of the dark lighting — yet I believe the requested participatory reading would enhance the listener’s experience of the song. In any event, it is unusual that an audience is asked to participate in a song performance in that manner. Matt Schickele’s Days afield on Staten Island sets a poem by naturalist William Thompson Davis; the music poetically evokes the sylvan scene described in the lyric.
This reviewer needed to take the A train to get to Galapagos but boarded what was actually a D train maddeningly mismarked as an A and so — across at Brooklyn’s Atlantic-Pacific station — had to hop the R back to Jay Street in order to get on the real damned A train and thus was perfectly primed for Gilda Lyons’ delicious “rapid transit.” Soprano Martha Guth and mezzo Blythe Gaissert sat facing one another upon chairs, as though on opposite sides of a subway car and then began soulfully singing “NYC, MTA” at each other a cappella. Lyons’ musical lines do certainly trump train lines; the audience appropriately laughed its approval over the expressively rendered “Expect delays in 2 and 5 service at this time.” Composer Russell Platt and poet Paul Muldoon are real New Yorkers – (both work for The New Yorker) – Platt’s setting of Muldoon’s The Avenue (II) conveys the enigmatic pains of a love affair snuffed by fate or something or other. Tenor Alex Richardson’s virile, compelling delivery of the opening verse – “Now that we’ve come to the end/I’ve been trying to piece it together” – drew the listener in; his skillful handling of the remainder of the song was matched by pianist Thomas Bagwell’s able accompaniment.
F from DUMBO, another of the Songbook’s tributes to the City’s storied underground, has Glen Roven treating Michael Tyrell’s poem with polished pizzazz in a scena that includes a startling line about “The flasher whose dick got caught in the closing doors.” The New Yorkers, with music and verse by Daron Hagen, presents an older married New York couple reflecting on how their expectations of the city have changed over time without ever eliminating their feeling for it. Guth and Richardson sang Hagen’s song from the inside out, meaning, they fully captured and communicated its essence.
Mohammed Fairouz’s treatment of W.H. Auden’s Refugee Blues rises to the historical and emotional scope of the poem – callousness to immigrants’ humanity and desperation, alas, still a topic of no small relevance. Gaissert’s rich, resonant, varicolored tone was aptly suited to Fairouz’s dramatic vocal writing. Richard Pearson Thomas’s The Center of the Universe is a sly take on the transformation of Times Square/42nd Street, from a squalid dump New Yorkers avoided, to a glittery tourist trap that they with snooty pride avoid more fervently still. Here, as each time they sang together, Guth, Gaissert, Richardson and baritone David Adam Moore performed beguilingly in ensemble.
The first half of the Songbook should be allowed meditative space after its end; deplorably, Galapagos rather immediately began blaring canned cacophony to help spoil the intermission. A critic might well reproach the out-of-condition piano used on this occasion for its production of bizarre buzzes and twangy twinges just where the critic least desired them. Bagwell and the evening’s second pianist, Jocelyn Dueck, made a silk purse out of that sow’s rear by navigating around the defective instrument’s eccentricities with increasing aplomb throughout the Songbook.
Fun-loving, musically naughty ingenuity marks Jorge Martìn’s City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys! – the audience was palpably caught up by the song’s honky-tonk-meets-cantus-firmus panache. John Glover’s setting of Matthew Hittinger’s 8:46, Five Years Later takes an intriguingly oblique view of the 9/11 tragedy. Then, modeled on Psalm 137, Julia Kasdorf’s poem On Leaving Brooklyn posits the Borough as the narrator’s Jerusalem. And composer Yotam Haber gives Kasdorf’s verse poignant musical expression. Harumi Rhodes, a violinist, unafraid to dig into her strings, joined the vocal quartet as a fifth voice lamenting for dear King’s County.
In Fresh Kills, Christina Courtin pays lovely, ironic tribute to the Staten Island landfill, where much 9/11 debris got sorted. The landfill presently is being converted to a park; future generations will need the song’s meaning explained. Renée Favand-See sets the image of a Brooklyn bank clock tower, glowing green, effectively against that of murky thunderheads over New Jersey in her nostalgia-tinged Looking West on a Humid Summer Evening. OuLiPo in the Bronx, Christopher Berg’s mischievously intellectual nod to the northernmost of the boroughs, was brightly sung and articulated by Richardson. Split between the four voices, Lisa Bielawa’s Breakfast in New York is a pastiche of banal lines – (luminously set, tuneful gold from teaspoonfuls of dross) – overheard in various diners around town.
Gaissert paced Gabriel Kahane’s Dunkin’ Donuts-dusted Coney Island Avenue with Broadway-like charisma and put an effective little edge of sarcasm into her voice while singing about “the socialist coffee shop. With the nasty vegan cupcakes.” Rhodes was given to play an onomatopoeic zum-zum-zumming on her violin when insatiable mosquitos were mentioned in Scott Wheeler’s At Home in Staten Island, which Guth sang with an appealing sound and consistently comprehensible diction.
The only subway line not to travel to Manhattan comes in for heaps of good-humored abuse in Tom Cipullo’s G is for Grimy: An Ode to the G Train. The text goes through dozens of repugnant G-words . . . Garbage, Gutter, Germy . . . before climaxing on Giuliani and ending with Gross. Yet all composers contributing to The Five Borough Songbook are Greatly Gifted, the performances were Graciously Groomed, so as for the upcoming performances in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, well, you really must Go, Go, Go, Go!
New York City-based novelist and freelance writer Scott Rose’s LGBT-interest by-line has appeared on Advocate.com, PoliticusUSA.com, The New York Blade, Queerty.com, Girlfriends and in numerous additional venues. Among his other interests are the arts, boating and yachting, wine and food, travel, poker and dogs. His “Mr. David Cooper’s Happy Suicide” is about a New York City advertising executive assigned to a condom account.
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