Thursday, February 9, 2012

Maury Yeston’s December Songs

I caught a fascinating program at the Duplex not too long ago, singer Jaime Hastings performing a song cycle in the cozy cabaret room. She sang it as a true cycle, that is, without breaks between the songs, and without conversation or patter. What she had to do, then, was compel our interest with only the music and the words, nothing else.  There was no escape for her – it was all in the music.
Hastings, who has a wide-ranging theatrical voice and a warm presence, sang December Songs, a cycle by the versatile Maury Yeston (in photo), who was inspired by Schubert’s Die Winterreise (Winter Journey) song cycle. But instead of a man singing in an Austrian forest, these songs are for a woman singing in Central Park. They concern her relationship with a lover and allow the singer to express various moods, mostly intense or sad, with lyrics such as, “Where are you now?” “Please let’s not even say hello,” and “Lie after lie.”
Even though Yeston had intended the cycle for cabaret, it nevertheless is a brave singer who will attempt it to an audience not quite familiar with the genre. The singer of such a program must totally be in control musically and in how she moves between songs at all times. This kind of internal concentration could take away from relating to the audience. But it was exciting to see that the audience stayed with the music, clapping occasionally between songs, in an attempt to reach out somehow toward the singer. Hastings was particularly good at introducing the first songs, drawing us in, and showing us by clear mood or gesture, what emotion drove the song even before she sang a word. Each of her sung words seemed to have been thought out, clearly laying a path for us to follow. I caught almost every word except for one rapid-fire song about encountering a homeless man, and I wondered if in just this song, the amplification proved a burden. I particularly liked “Bookseller in the Rain” and “Grandmother’s Love Letters.”
The latter third of the cycle seemed to grow more trivial – I began to think that I had gotten the point. One can only go so deep in Central Park snow, and one problem with being inspired by another work is that it may become predictable. It was, however, not the fault of Hastings that the cycle began to feel like “romance novel meets Schubert.” I’m also not sure if that could be attributed to the cabaret setting and our needing some other interaction with the singer or the lack of a break in emotional intensity.
Hastings’ singing was powerful, disciplined and evocative of the pictures she drew for us of both the character’s inner and outer life. There were times when her upper register seemed a little foggy, and I was not sure if that was due to nerves or if she had a minor head cold. But she brought us through that snowy Central Park journey beautifully.
Hastings was assisted at the piano by the excellent Jeff Cubeta, who provided a sensitive foundation of sound underlining the emotions and words. Directed by the formidable Eric Michael Gilette, this program pushed the possibility of cabaret to another level. I was glad I was there.
December Songs by Maury Yeston. Sung by Jaime Hastings. Musical Director: Jeff Cubeta. Directed by: Eric Michael Gilette. At The Duplex, 61 Christopher St. at Seventh Avenue.

Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet, and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era, concerning the effect of the mining on the native tribes. Her CD, Through the Years, is available on CD Baby.

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