Immediately prior to mezzo soprano Mikaela Bennett and pianist Forrest Eimold’s performance of Missy Mazzoli’s As Long as We Live – the second piece on the program in the first night of National Sawdust’s “21c Liederabend, Op. Senses” and the Brooklyn venue’s first in-person concert since lockdown – audience members were instructed to remove a small card from an envelope contained within a handmade book each of them had been given. They were then told to write on that card something they should have said to someone but didn’t and to put them somewhere where they’d find it in a week, or a month, or a year. “Yup,” said broadcaster, performer and Helga Davis, the evening’s master of ceremonies, “it’s going to be that kind of night.” 

21c Liederabend Op Senses
© Jill Steinberg

And, indeed, it did turn out to be that kind of night, although just what kind of night is hard to say. It was an indulgent salon of new songs of nostalgia and reckoning, preceded by an open bar and light buffet, followed by a second set of songs performed on found objects by Sxip Shirey. Davis was an amiable host, chatting with the audience and talking them through the enveloped activities designed for each song by artist Kathryn Hamilton. Davis also directed the small crowd to a downloadable concert program; she had too much to do to introduce the composers and compositions herself.  

Mazzoli’s song (one of seven on the program) was delivered more than ably by Mikaela Bennett, the first of three she would sing. Despite being just four years out of school (all of the singers were recent graduates of The Juilliard School), Bennett has sung with the New York Philharmonic, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the New World Symphony and appeared at the 2019 BBC Proms. She has a wonderfully easy voice, sliding into vibrato and along glissandi as if she were merely speaking the part. Having fully absorbed, or been absorbed into, the song, she gave an aching performance of Mazzoli’s setting of text from Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road. Molly Joyce’s East River, with a libretto by Christopher Oscar Peña, had Bennett pleading against minimalist piano repetitions, as if (it seemed) the river were beckoning her to jump in and end her sadness, Eimold vocally echoing her repeated “why”. Bennett appeared again in Emma O’Halloran’s Constellations, giving each line in the short verse its own, studied consideration. She seemingly could sing anything. 

21c Liederabend Op Senses
© Jill Steinberg

East River was one of the strongest pieces of the night, along with the invented words of Du Yun’s Zolle, which had tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole stammering against clean violin lines. He gave an impeccable delivery of what was no doubt a challenging piece, like an Italian aria caught in a digital glitch. Angélica Negrón’s Letras Para Cantar (libretto by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz) likewise seemed to play with classical, or pre-classical, forms, three voices (Yvette Keong, Mer Wohlgemuth and Katherine Whyte) with prerecorded electronics in a sort of contemporary plainsong, also designed to break and glitch at times. 

Ellen Reid’s Lumee’s Dream, sung by mezzo Nicole Thomas (with a libretto by Roxie Perkins) was somber and strong, and featured the largest ensemble of the evening: two violins, viola, cello, harp and percussion. National Sawdust co-founder Paola Prestini’s evocative Distance to the Market, abetted by Adam Richardson’s fine, warm baritone, opened the concert, a not overly sentimental song about waiting as a child for someone to come home. Audience members were provided a small drawing of a window with a blue plastic film to peer through. 

21c Liederabend Op Senses
© Jill Steinberg

The evening, co-produced with Beth Morrison Projects, would have run the risk of being too busy had the music (which, on its own, didn’t occupy much more than a half hour of stage time) not been so good and the various indulgences so entertaining. It was a concert that tried too hard and succeeded on all counts. 

****1