In a disturbing twist of history, the issues raised in Leonard Bernstein’s “Songfest” seem suddenly more pressing than they did when the piece was written four decades ago.
Economic inequality, women’s rights, racism, gay sexuality, the immigrant experience — these themes jostle for consideration in the twelve songs of Bernstein’s cycle, which scores poems spanning 300 years of America’s melting-pot history.
Not that “Songfest” is unremittingly serious. It often bursts with vitality and humor, qualities vividly communicated in Saturday evening’s performance by LOFTrecital, a grassroots collective of classical musicians based in the Twin Cities.
LOFTrecital likes to mount events in unconventional places, so the choice of Antonello Hall at the MacPhail Center was relatively conservative by the ensemble’s usual standards.
But in other ways this was probably the most ambitious LOFTrecital project yet. “Songfest” requires no fewer than six singers, and in the version used Saturday evening, two grand pianos replaced the large orchestra used in Bernstein’s original scoring. LOFTrecital artistic director James Barnett conducted.
Together, they made a rousing impression in “To the Poem,” the mock-pompous chorale celebrating the creative spirit with which “Songfest” opens.
The piece also provides plenty of moments for more intimate reflection. In “The Pennycandystore Beyond the El,” Will Liverman wrapped his silken baritone around poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s nostalgic recollection of “Tootsie Rolls and Oh Boy Gum,” and first love frustrated amid the “glowing jelly beans.”
The love depicted in Walt Whitman’s poem “To What You Said” was that which for a long time dared not speak its name. Bass Ben Sieverding brought a calm dignity to Bernstein’s setting, where “love choked, correct, polite” is spurned in favor of the poet’s attachment “to these young men that travel with me.”
Where Whitman strides assuredly forward, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “What Lips My Lips have Kissed” looks back regretfully, mourning the “unremembered lads” who are her lovers no more.
Mezzo-soprano Victoria Vargas brought a poised tone and quiet intensity to Bernstein’s setting, the one he liked best in the “Songfest” collection.
Bernstein was a strong supporter of social activism, and his radical instincts cut through particularly in “I, Too, Sing America”/“Okay ‘Negroes,’ ” poems by Langston Hughes and June Jordan that he combined into a single song.
The powerful soprano of Helena Brown jousted with baritone Will Liverman in this crosscut saw of a duet, whose images of racial subjugation continue to unsettle and foment an unruly energy.
Soprano Chelsea Shephard and tenor Andres Acosta completed the excellent team of soloists. Sofia Mycyk and Eric McEnaney provided incisive accompaniments throughout the evening, although occasionally the singers struggled to be heard amid the clangor of two pianos operating at full throttle.
But that was a small price to pay for hearing “Songfest” in such an emotionally committed and stirring interpretation. Eclectic and passionately inclusive, it is one of Bernstein’s most characteristic pieces, and major kudos to LOFTrecital for resurrecting it in this special year of the composer’s birth centenary.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.