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New York Festival of Song: “Harlem Renaissance”

A brilliant evening of song: smart, sexy, serious and profoundly satisfying.

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James Martin, Julia Bullock and Darius De Haas as they appeared in New York Festival of Song's "Harlem Renaissance" (Photo credit:" Matthew Murphy)

James Martin, Julia Bullock and Darius De Haas as they appeared in New York Festival of Song’s “Harlem Renaissance” (Photo credit:” Matthew Murphy)


Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

The Merkin Concert Hall of the Kaufman Music Center was packed on a recent cold December evening; the audience, happily anticipating two hours of fabulous music, was not disappointed. Five musicians – pianists Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, soprano Julia Bullock, tenor Darius de Haas and baritone James Martin – presented 24 carefully chosen pieces of music from the Harlem Renaissance in a concert of marvelous music-making. The singers inhabited their songs so completely that their singing was not about interpretation, but identity. The pianists were equal partners in the music, not mere accompanists. The audience applause, together with their Ohhs and Ahhs and slowly expelled breaths of marveling gratitude, created an atmosphere of receptivity that greeted and thanked the musicians before and after every song.

Blier and Barrett founded the New York Festival of Song 27 years ago and have guided its innovative, original and intelligent programs and concerts ever since. Blier is the NYFOS Artistic Director and Barrett its Associate Artistic Director. For this program of Harlem Renaissance songs, Blier wrote program notes so thorough as to constitute an extended essay – a first rate piece of musical and cultural history – and also talked directly to the audience about individual songs, their composers and their contexts. Blier played about two-thirds of the songs, and Barrett the other third.

Bullock, de Haas and Martin alternated singing, entering the stage, fully possessing its space and then leaving it again after each one of their songs. A few songs were duets; the opening and concluding numbers – and the encore – brought all three singers together.

In his opening remarks, Blier introduced the Harlem Renaissance as an intellectual and cultural project of great seriousness, an attempt to demonstrate that the early twentieth century modern Negro could produce works of art commensurate with those of any white artists, complete with mastery of the vocabulary, allusions and references, forms and genres of  Western European and American high art. According to Blier, the goal of Harlem Renaissance artists was to display their ability to competently manipulate the inherited artistic vocabulary which, they argued, belonged as much to them as to any other Americans. According to Blier, too, these artists gathered after hours, singing and dancing, letting loose, and creating a new kind of music – jazz – that would prove to be the greatest legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.

Intellectual and cultural historians might dispute Blier’s account of the music of the Harlem Renaissance, arguing that its achievements were more varied than Blier implies. But the distinction between serious and popular material that Blier draws contributed to the successful programming of this concert: in both halves of the concert, Blier placed “art songs” among the more popular musical theater and nightclub songs and in that way illuminated the particular features and characteristics of each.

Taken all together, the songs Blier chose for this program demanded a huge range of skills and stylistic competencies from the singers. Happily, Bullock, de Haas and Martin are all such accomplished singers, so experienced in music of all sorts, that they were comfortable with every genre and every arrangement of the material that Blier chose for them: they also gave every evidence of adoring their material.

Bullock’s artistry is deep and, in spite of her relative youth, very mature. She uses her full and flexible voice to manage rich paradoxes. She can make sass tender and prayers defiant; her sultriness is sturdy and flat-out passion carries edges of wistfulness and irony. Songs are not things she’s learned: they belong to her and, with infinite generosity, she gives them to us.

Like Bullock, Martin includes classical musical training in his background. Bullock’s institutions are Eastman, Bard and Juilliard; Martin’s are Illinois Wesleyan and Juilliard. Martin also teaches at Millsaps College in Mississippi and is an accomplished church musician. Martin’s “art songs” in this program were eloquent, sweepingly large in some moments and astonishingly intimate, trusting and whisper-close in others. More than either Bullock or de Haas, Martin’s singing bore out Blier’s differentiation between serious art songs and more informal popular songs. Some of his singing was operatic in its feel and scope, and he could also positively bust out with glee, dancing up a storm, defying anyone to dare to interrupt his irrepressible energy.

De Haas’ musical theater background made him the most actorly of the three singers: with a voice of wide expressivity and considerable virtuosity, he could tell any story he wanted and make every nuance of it shimmer with clarity.

Two characteristics bound these three singers together. First, they share profound capacities for empathetic imagination and can therefore  present the tough, tired wisdom that all these Harlem Renaissance songs together as though it is their own. These singers have themselves become old and wise, two men and a woman who know everything they’re telling us so certainly that their songs’ truths require no intermediary interpretation.

Second, these singers and Blier and Barrett are superb partners and collaborators. Sharing this music and these lyrics, the five musicians were keenly attuned to each other’s pacing and timing; they anticipated each other’s shifts in pace or tone and responded immediately with deftness and fluency to each other’s turns or alterations. The result was that this concert was not a rehearsed performance but organic music making.

Two flaws in the performance presented minor frustrations. Between some of the songs, the musicians read or recited poetry or prose materials from the same era as the songs. Bullock’s voice at its most quiet was inaudible when she recited poetry; this was disappointing because her heard readings were so fine that one didn’t want to miss any of them. In addition, this “bridge” material between songs wasn’t always as clearly identified as it could have been.

In an evening as wonderful as this, these minor problems in no way compromised the program’s success or integrity. Each individual song was its own world, worthy of its own extended commentary. The performances were so uniformly excellent that no individual audience member with several absolutely favorite songs could be surprised that other audience members might have completely different sets of favorites.

The choice of songs for the program was intelligent at several levels. There was a nice balance of extremely well known songs such as The Joint is Jumpin, My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More, I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So and The Harlem Blues, with less well known songs such as A Porter’s Love Song to a Chambermaid, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing and What’s the Use.

The concert had a pleasing sway from songs that made us laugh to songs that made us weep, and back; some songs were funny and some heavy with grief. Every song was an invitation into the experience of a scene or a story, of celebration or requiem … or both. And every invitation was accepted by the audience with happy gratitude.

New York Festival of Song: “Harlem Renaissance” (December 9, 2014)

Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Music Center, 129 W. 67th Street, in Manhattan

For more information:

Running time: first half: 55 minutes; second half: 60 minutes

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