In Their Lives
By Bob Hughes
Baritone Andrew Garland, at New York's Kaufman Music Center for the New York Festival of Song's Schubert/Beatles concert (photo by Cherylynn Tsushima)
MANY OF US have heard or seen mash-ups of songs and of movies and television shows, often to funny (and sometimes to illuminating) effect. But it's rare to attend a concert where a mash-up spanned two wildly different eras and cultural milieus and revealed haunting similarities of tone and feeling.
That happened at Schubert/Beatles, a New York Festival of Song concert in New York that paired Schubert lieder with Beatles songs. The result was ravishing.
We know how sublime Schubert lieder are when sung with feeling and simplicity. This was the case here – and the tenor Paul Appleby, the baritone Andrew Garland and the soprano Sari Gruber – all quite gifted singers – served Schubert's deceptively decorous settings superbly, with feeling and ardor and regret and melancholy and urgency.
What was surprising was how nicely the Beatles songs worked following or interspersed with the Schubert ones. Artistic director Steven Blier arranged the songs thematically, so songs of loss were combined, songs of love, songs of leaving. Associate artistic director Michael Barrett accompanied the singers on the Schubert, and Blier on the Beatles, and Blier's wonderful inventive musicianship shone in his arrangements of these now-classic songs which, in a testament to the craftsmanship of Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison, were remarkable even out of the recording studio and rearranged for the recital hall.
The program didn't list the Beatles songs – there was no need, since they're such a part of our shared cultural soundtrack. Part of the considerable joy of the program was in hearing a familiar Beatles melody following a slightly less familiar Schubert one, and seeing how they played off each other.
So Schubert's "Licht und LIebe," sung with exquisite tenderness by Sari Gruber and Paul Appleby, was followed by an instrumental version of "Blackbird," with violinist Charles Yang evoking the almost-Appalachian, Scots-Irish mourning of the famous Beatle tune from the White Album. When you can still recognize a melody that is put through such dynamic and inspired improvisational deconstruction you know how sturdy the underlying material is.
But more than that, the Beatles songs commented in stirring ways on the Schubert lieder, and vice versa, making each rendition special, memorable and quite often heartbreaking. The haunting song about John Lennon's mother, "Julia" (here with a subtly reconfigured time signature) followed Schubert's urgent "Alinde, with its search for a missing amour. Andrew Garland and Paul Appleby's "If I Fell" was a rapturous duet of love and regret, pairing nicely with "Im Frühling," which followed it and then was followed by a beautiful "Yesterday," from Appleby (with violin by Charles Yang and guitar by Theo Hoffman, both of whom also provided vocal harmonies here and there).
What surprised us in the audience was how immediate and moving the Beatles songs were next to the Schubert. Different sorts of songs, of course – one for the homes of certain educated Viennese at the beginning of the 19th century and the others for mid-20th-century rock and roll fans – but with similar concerns.
Theo Hoffman, baritone and guitar (photo by Cherylynn Tsushima)
Perhaps most poignant, especially in light of recent events in which ordinary lives were upended by extraordinary violence, were "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," sung simply and affectingly by Sari Gruber (with accompaniment by Yang and Hoffman) and the finale, an affecting, inclusive "In My Life," sung by the company, following a tender rendition of Schubert's final song, "Die Taubenpost," by Andrew Garland.
Often, we were on the verge of tears at the beauty of it all – how entirely different composers across the centuries could touch the hearts and minds of generations of contemporary listeners who melted at major-minor, happy-sad, heartfelt and heartbroken worldviews expressed with artistry in two- and three-minute songs. A world of experience in fleeting moments of bliss.
Mash-ups should come more often to the recital hall – who knows how much more we'd pay attention to treasures from the past and near-past if we could hear how well they work together?
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