New York Festival of Song

Harry, Hoagy and Harold

Weill Recital Hall - Feb. 7, 2008

Reviewed by John Kenrick

For twenty years, the New York Festival of Song has been presenting adventurous musical programs, ranging from the classical to premieres of newly commissioned works. This time around, they focused on the songs of Harry Warren, Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen. Several of their hits were included, but the stress was on lesser known numbers. As pianist and arranger Steven Blier explained, "No song is obscure; it's just a friend you haven't met yet." His team of three musicians and three vocalists proceeded to offer one of the most well-crafted and satisfying programs New York has seen in some time.

All three singers offered memorable moments. Baritone James Martin sang the delightful "Evelina" from Arlen's Bloomer Girl (the only bona fide showtune of the evening), and gave a moving rendition of that composer's late unpublished "Come On, Midnight." Soprano Jonita Lattimore's creamy vocals made the most of Warren's "I Only Have Eyes for You" and Carmichael's "The Nearness of You."

Broadway aficionados will not be surprised to know that the always amazing Mary Testa wowed the room time and again, winning laughs with Warren's Carmen Miranda signature song "I Yi Yi Yi Yi (I Like You Very Much)," and sending everyone flying with Carmichael's luscious "Skylark." But this program was so well balanced that, although I went in loving Ms. Testa, I left singing the praises of all three vocalists.

Frankly, I was also rapturously praising the other gifted people on that stage. Aside from Mr. Blier's rich piano accompaniment (and his enchanting use of celesta highlights), the singers were backed up by Greg Utzig on banjo and guitar, and the wonderful jazz man Vince Giordano, who bounced with breathtaking ease between the bass and various brass instruments, including the tuba. The entire evening was lad out with exquisite taste, allowing each song to be admired at the best possible moment. Ballads, charm songs and comedy numbers were placed with the sort of care one rarely sees anymore, with a duets and trios neatly offsetting the solos. It all flowed with a seeming effortlessness that speaks of painstaking care.

Best of all, this program was presented in Carnegie's intimate Well Recital Hall, so there was no amplification; just the firsthand glory of music and the human voice. The results are light years removed from the soulless cacophony one hears on the Grammy Awards nowadays, but it took listeners right into the heart of what these gifted songwriters were really about. When the expected encore ended, it was quite clear that the audience would have relished several additional numbers. And how long has it been since a concert really left 'em wanting more?

The New York Festival of Song's eclectic programs don't always reach into the realms of show tunes and standards, but this time around their efforts would have gladdened the heart of anyone who shares this critic's abiding love of the Great American Songbook. It doesn't get much better than this!

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