Five Boroughs Music Festival, wherein 20 composers were commissioned to write songs about New York to texts of their own choosing. "Just as every trip around NYC is a singular adventure, we hope your Five Borough Songbook journey will be full of new surprises each time you take the trip." write baritone Jesse Blumberg, Artistic Director, and mezzo Donna Breitzer, Executive Director. "Thanks for coming along for the ride, and stand clear of the closing doors…"
Any time you ask 20 people to create art about NYC, you'll find some of them cover similar ground. Several songs have to do with NYC's subways. First up is Glen Roven's "F from DUMBO," performed by baritone David Adam Moore and pianist Thomas Bagwell. Michael Tyrell's poem, captured well by Mr. Roven, talks about witnessing the heart and personality of a city on the F train. The poet has seen it all. "No more omens, please! I don't want to be a recording angel!"
My favorite subway song is Tom Cipullo's "G is for Grimy: an Ode to the G Train" This is one of several songs with "found" lyrics, in this case quotes from Internet postings about the G train. The four singers each take a different personality--one love sick (tenor Alex Richardson), one angry (soprano Martha Guth), one cheerful (mezzo Blythe Gaissert). The hipster baritone (David McFerrin) has some of the best lines, including "People talk a lot of shit about you.... I know you're shorter than the other trains and you've never been to Manhattan, but you're there for me...." In the end all four singers agree that G stands for grimy, grungy, greasy, ghastly, and a host of other painful G-words. Including Giuliani.
When setting artists loose on the topic of NYC, you will also find Walt Whitman references. The first CD begins with Ricky Ian Gordon's setting of Whitman's "O City of Ships" (performed by Miss Guth, Mr. Blumberg, and Mr. Bagwell), and the second CD begins with Jorge Martin's "City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys!", based on the composer's own (one assumes) imitation of Walt Whitman's style. Call me shallow, but I tend to prefer orgies to ships. I liked Mr. Martin's boogie-woogie style setting of the poem, and the message of love and lust: "....but as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love, Offering response to my own--they repay me...." NYC has always been one of those places people come to find themselves, and one can easily imagine how finding love easily--for an afternoon or a lifetime--is also a part of the city's lure. This is performed by Miss Guth, Mr. Richardson, Mr. Bagwell, and violist Harumi Rhodes.
Staten Island wins the contest for the borough with the most songs dedicated to it. Of these my favorite is Scott Wheeler's "At Home in Staten Island," a setting of an 1869 poem by British poet Charles Mackay for soprano and viola. The poet seeks to convince his love that they have found a paradise on Staten Island--no, really--but his love argues nothing compares to the homeland they'd left. The song is strophic, with a charming melody that reminds me of a lute song (although the liner notes make reference to Victorian parlor songs), while the viola part is a series of increasingly complex variations. This song is sung beautifully by Miss Guth, with Miss Rhodes on viola.
Just as time and space prevent mentioning every song in this set, so is it difficult to mention every performer. All the singers give committed performances of the songs they sing, and all the instrumentalists also give fine performances. I would call this a CD for anyone interested in song literature, and anyone with strong feelings for New York City, should hear. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
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