I don't usually put whole articles or reviews out here on DesignerBlog but this one from the New York Times about a special vocal concert in New York City struck me as one in which many of you would be interested. The huge presence of gays and lesbians in the performing arts and in audiences for the performing arts has long been recognized. Gay-themed material shows up regularly now on the theater, opera and musical stage, while characters in older works who are not overtly gay are being re-examined by actors and directors based on coded hints in the writing, facts surrounding the work’s creation, etc.
Mr. Stephen Blier, who suffers from a paralysis that has blessedly not invaded his arms and hands, assembled material and an excellent vocal quartette to present a specifically gay-themed song recital of an openness that breaks some new ground.
For Song Festival, a Program of Personal Significance
by Anthony Tommasini
The pianist Steven Blier and the vocalists, from left, Scott Murphee, Matthew Worth, Jesse Blumberg and Matt Boehler at Merkin Concert Hall on Tuesday. Photo by Jennifer Taylor for The New York Times
On Tuesday night at Merkin Concert Hall the sensitive pianist and increasingly busy vocal coach Steven Blier presented a program he says he has wanted to do since he was a co-founder of the New York Festival of Song in 1988.
“Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life,” a richly varied 90-minute recital, delivered on the promise of its title. Such programs can easily fall into the trap of social politics and turn maudlin, agenda driven and campy. This one, in the first of two performances, was insightful and imaginative, touching and funny, ranging from Schubert and Saint-Saëns to Bernstein and Bolcom.
Mr. Blier had impressive partners for this journey in the tenor Scott Murphee, the baritones Jesse Blumberg and Matthew Worth and the bass Matt Boehler. Here were four vocally gifted young artists palpably committed to the project and, most important to an exacting coach like Mr. Blier, instinctive communicators who proved that operatic voices can sing English with conversational clarity if they care enough.
In a way it is sad that it took Mr. Blier so long to present a program that had such personal significance. He was stuck, he explains in revealing program notes, “poised between gung-ho and gun-shy.” But he was aware that the premise behind a program of songs about gay men and gay life was open to question. “And what is a gay song anyway?” he asks in the notes. “A song that prefers to sleep with other songs of the same gender?”
Still, he has strong feelings about the gay resonances that run through many songs, even those in which these themes seem submerged. His take came through with the opening work, when Mr. Boehler sang “The Purest Kind of Guy,” with music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein, from the 1941 musical “No for an Answer.” In the show the song was sung by Paul Robeson as a birthday tribute of a “brotherly variety” to another man, Mr. Blier said.
In Mr. Boehler’s performance, with lines like “And when a man’s O.K.,/I know it a mile away,” sung without a trace of wink-wink irony, it emerged as an ode about “gaydar,” as Mr. Blier said, the way gay people “sniff out which team another person plays on.”
Mr. Blier also teased out the gay resonances of “Tennis Duet,” from the Cy Coleman musical “City of Angels,” with lyrics by David Zippel. In the show the song is a duet for two tennis players in the locker room of the Yale Club, Mr. Blier explained. But sung here with vitality and coyness by Mr. Murphee and Mr. Worth, it seemed a slyly seductive duo: “I bet you like to play rough./I like to work up a sweat.”
The program’s first segment, “Man to Man,” explored explicit gay longing, especially in Mr. Blumberg’s poignant performance of Christopher Berg’s wistful “Song (Is It Dirty).” The music sets a poem by Frank O’Hara that couches a plea for self-acceptance in the imagery of gritty urban life. City air may be dirty, but “you don’t refuse to breathe do you,” O’Hara asks.
Two segments explored “Gay Heritage in Art Song,” with works by Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Griffes, Britten and others; another took the audience on a plucky exploration of drag. The final segment, “Encounter, Crisis, Liberation, Celebration,” included a song by Chris De Blasio from “The AIDS Quilt Songbook” and Bernstein’s boldest affirmation of gay love, “To What You Said,” from “Songfest,” a setting of Whitman.
And to end there was Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” In this decoded context, with lines traded by the four singers, the title took on a new spin, as Mr. Blier said. Even the encore was sweet: “My Guy,” the Motown hit, sung by the willing quartet joyously spinning lines like “Nothing you can say,/Can tear me away,/From my guy.”