Thursday, April 17, 2008

Six degrees of musical separation

Our house in Teaneck, NJ, was built in 1922, and for a significant part of its life it was a church. It is on the historic registry in town, and one can find information about it at our local library. Every so often someone will stop by and tell us that they spent their early childhood in our basement, which was once a daycare centre, or that they recall the years that our house was a church, or that they remember the lovely family from whom we purchased the house.

One summer evening, about a year ago, a lithe, beautiful woman with a long, silver ponytail and a very attractive younger woman with two tots appeared at my door. The elder woman said that she grew up in our house in the days when it housed the church. I invited her inside and wanted to hear everything. We had always had a lot of questions and very few answers. She would open up the walls for us and let them speak their volumes.

As she entered our den, she sighed, "This was the organ room," and, pointing to the TV, "Yep, that's where the organ was."

She saw not the packed bookshelves that adorn the room, my thousands of record albums or my wool stash behind the reupholstered chair that Dad had once rescued from the trash in Toronto. She saw her childhood. It was the first time in at least 40 years since she had been in the house.

In the year that has passed since that encounter, we have learned a lot about each other. She is a talented artist who makes and exhibits dolls from her base in Maine, and she is the mother-in-law of a Russian operatic singer who is appearing this week at Weill Auditorium in New York City.

Here's how The New York Times described his Tuesday performance, which is being repeated tonight:

French Ingredients, Russian Dressing

The baritone Anton Belov accompanied by Steven Blier in “Obsession à la Russe” at Weill Hall.
Photograph by Erin Baiano for The New York Times


April 17, 2008

The mutual attraction between France and Russia, which began in the 18th century when Peter the Great’s daughter the Empress Elizabeth became fascinated with all things French, was a marriage of opposites: musically, the weighty, mournful Russian sound often contrasted with French transparency and spirit. But a program called “Obsession à la Russe,” presented by the New York Festival of Song at Weill Recital Hall on Tuesday and enlivened by the witty commentary of the able accompanist Steven Blier, challenged some of those musical stereotypes. When planning the event, Mr. Blier said, he noted how Russian the French composers could sound — “in their own diaphanous way” — and vice versa.

The first half of the concert, titled “Russia Looks West,” featured songs by Russian composers set to French poetry, beginning with Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s “Au Bal,” a Gallic-flavored parlor piece sung by the young tenor Nicholas Phan. Anton Belov, a baritone with a rich, mellifluous voice, sang two of Tchaikovsky’s “Six French Songs” and “April! A Festive Day in Spring,” an unusually cheery rarity by the teenage Rachmaninoff. Dina Kuznetsova, a soprano with an attractive, bright voice, performed selections including the passionate “Music” by Sergei Taneyev, a student of Tchaikovsky. Ms. Kuznetsova and Mr. Phan combined for three “Vocalises” by Prokofiev, one of a number of Russian artists, including Diaghilev and Stravinsky, who lived in Paris.

The Franco-Russian traffic went both ways. Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and Debussy visited Russia, and many French composers were influenced by their Slavic colleagues. In the second half of the program, “Russia Comes West,” Ms. Kuznetsova sang Stravinsky’s delicate “Two Poems of Konstantin Bal’mont” and Satie’s “Daphénéo,” from a set of three songs dedicated to Stravinsky.
Mr. Phan, whose emotional palette seemed limited, performed songs by Poulenc (the first, “Le Portrait,” an example of the composer sounding like Stravinsky, Mr. Blier said) and Ravel’s “Sainte,” whose chords evoke the Orthodox Church.

The highlight of the evening was Mr. Belov’s powerful renditions of signature songs of the bass Fyodor Chaliapin, another Russian who lived in Paris, including “Trepak” from Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death” and the title character’s aria from Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko.” In “Nochen’ka,” a melancholy folk melody, Mr. Belov sounded particularly fine, singing with urgency and soulful pathos.

The program is repeated Thursday night at Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall; (212) 247-7800,

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