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Stephanie Blythe Enchants Bard

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Nov 10th, 2019

At left: Craig Terry and Stephanie Blythe with students

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, Musial America’s Vocalist of the Year in 2009 and esteemed Artistic Director of Bard College’s Graduate Vocal Arts Program, offered an evening of popular song at Bard’s Sosnoff Theater. Craig Terry accompanied her on piano. Yet the program titled “Sing, Bard!” was not merely Blythe, but also her many students performed from the Great American Songbook. Blythe sang solo for the first half and the second half showcased her students.

Blythe opened with “Please Be Kind” (1938) by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn. One thing Blythe accomplishes—as if through mere instinct—is to capture the emotional depth of a song and take it to the moon. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (1917) by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin featured forceful use of Blythe’s upper register. This tune finds its roots in a Chopin Fantasy as well as Impromptu. Blythe delivered a silver lining of nostalgia to the song.

In remembrance of Judy Garland’s recent death, Blythe continued the nostalgic vein with “The Man That Got Away,” which was a big 1953 hit for Garland, endowing it with such nuanced dynamics I began to think that Garland was that man. Albert Von Tilzer and June McCree’s “Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey” with a new medley arrangement by Craig Terry. Blythe sang with that Big Mama earthy energy and absolute conviction that the sentimental song demands.

Blythe requested that the audience sing along with her to James V. Monaco and Joseph McCarthy’s 1913 hit “You Made Me Love You.” Inspired by Blythe’s exuberant irrationality, the audience rollicked along with her, yet her lungs towered over the audience, which was attempting to compete with her!

The student Trio of Chelsea Fingal DeSouzao, Hailey McAvoy, and Pauline Tan who held forth with the required lungs and finesse to sing Rogers and Hart’s 1938 “Sing for Your Supper.” Blythe once more roused the audience to accompany her with Isham Jones and Gus Kahn’s 1924 “It Had to Be You” which was rendered with joyous gusto.

Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic?” (1932) with Craig Terry’s arrangement permitted Blythe to soar into that Netherworld or Romance where those who enter rarely return. All of Blythe’s students seated at cafe tables then joined to sing Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion’s 1965 “The Impossible Dream” from the musical “The Man of La Mancha.” I’m afraid to report that this is neither my favorite musical nor favorite song because its sensibility offers sentimental inversion of Cervantes’ great cynical, comic masterpiece. Anyway, the melody is quite attractive, and the rendition was superb!

After a brief intermission, Jardena Gertler-Jaffe sang Rodgers and Hart’s 1929 “With a Song in My Heart.” Her vocal dynamics were delicate and strong: the audience gave her a big, enthusiastic ovation. It was now time for comic relief from romance. Maximillian Jansen with broad theatrical gestures sang “I want to Sing in Opera” (1910). Jansen delivered that slight nasal parody which enlivened the silly lyrics. This parlor room classic elicited jubilant guffaws. Continuing with comedy, Diana Schwam sang Irving Berlin’s 1914 classic “If You Don’t Want My Peaches” with poised aplomb amid slightly seductive gyrations. Her climax delivered that Wow! thrill.

CodyRay Caho, dressed all in black, was scheduled to sing Cole Porter’s comic “Tale of the Oyster” from 1929. Yet he scratched that in favor of Cole Porter’s “You do something to Me that Nobody Else Can Do!” This shift back to romance worked quite well as he evoked deep sincerity in his tenor voice.

Blythe once more took center stage to sing Hoagy Carmichael’s famous 1930 “Georgia on My Mind” with svelte nuance where the ending was memorably sweet and haunting. All Blythe’s students joined in to sing Terry’s arrangement of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” from 1941. This was a festive romp with all students singing in unison. They continued with “Singing in the Rain” (1929), “Over the Rainbow” (1939) and Randy Newman”s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” (1968).

The applause was extremely robust. For encore, Blythe sang Judy Garland’s 1954 hit “It’s a New World.” The fragile poignancy of those lyrics, combined with indeterminate hope, and resigned the audience to the current cold season they live in.

This delightful, predominately extroverted excursion through the Great American Songbook will be replicated this evening at Carnegie Hall.