New York Times
BY ALLAN KOZINN
The Five Boroughs Music Festival began in 2007 with the idea of presenting concerts all over New York. The festival has no preconceptions about genre: its offerings have included folk music, early music and art song. To celebrate its fifth anniversary the festival commissioned 20 composers to write songs about the city for one to four voices, using texts of their choice (several wrote their own). The resulting “Five Borough Songbook” had its premiere at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn three months ago and made its way to Manhattan on Thursday, to the Baruch Performing Arts Center.
With 20 composers involved you might expect every current style to be represented. Quite a few were, though one conspicuous absence was 12-tone or even sharp angularity. Unalloyed minimalism was missing, too, although Yotam Haber uses passing hints of it, along with light but insistent dissonances, in “On Leaving Brooklyn,” a haunting ensemble treatment of Julia Kasdorf’s updating of Psalm 137.
Mr. Haber’s work was the program’s most experimental piece, though inventive approaches to taking the city’s pulse were plentiful. For several composers, that pulse was best taken on the subway. In “F From Dumbo,” Glen Roven mimics a handful of train rhythms in his piano writing, and Gilda Lyons transforms acronyms, route numbers and letters and a listing of transit-authority service changes into a comic soprano and mezzo-soprano duet, “rapid transit.” Tom Cipullo marshals the four singers for a blunt comic piece about the depredations of one route in “G Is for Grimy: An Ode to the G Train.”
Lisa Bielawa uses snippets of overheard conversation in “Breakfast in New York,” a melodic vocal quartet with an inviting, detailed violin accompaniment. And Richard Pearson Thomas captures the dizzying bustle of the city in the vigorous, tongue-in-cheek patter of “Center of the Universe.”
Wry observation is a crucial undercurrent in this collection, but so is wistfulness. Gabriel Kahane’s energetic “Coney Island Avenue” and Renée Favand-See’s alluringly chromatic “Looking West on a Humid Summer Evening” treat motley sections of Brooklyn with a warmth that evokes Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Matt Schickele is similarly nostalgic in “Days Afield on Staten Island,” a lively, counterpoint-rich setting of an 1892 poem by William Thompson Davis, and Christopher Tignor’s exquisitely harmonized evocation of longing, in “Secret Assignation,” is one of the set’s purely musical highlights.
Mohammed Fairouz’s “Refugee Blues” is an arresting, self-contained melting pot: it begins with Middle Eastern modal writing and moves decisively into Western melody, with driven rhythms that convey the shape (metrically and emotionally) of that dark Auden poem.
Jorge Martín’s “City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys!” matches Whitman’s paean to Manhattan with a bluesy, Gershwin-esque melody. Other pop styles make brief appearances. The barest flicker of jazz illuminates “The City of Love,” Martin Hennessy’s languid setting of Claude McKay’s poem, and Scott Wheeler borrows an old English ballad style for his take on another McKay poem, “At Home in Staten Island.” Folkish directness also drives Christina Courtin’s “Fresh Kills,” a pained look at a landfill.
Ricky Ian Gordon, whose “O City of Ships” (based on Whitman poem) opened the program, draws on a theatrical style. Others — Daron Aric Hagen, Russell Platt John Glover and Christopher Berg — take a more straightforward art-song approach. The singers — Martha Guth, soprano; Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo-soprano; Alex Richardson, tenor; and David McFerrin, baritone — were strong individually and made a finely balanced ensemble. The violinist Harumi Rhodes and the pianists Jocelyn Dueck and Thomas Bagwell were solid, colorful accompanists.