It’s a New York thing

picniccantataToday’s CD is a bit of an oddity and a bit of a period piece.  It’s Paul Bowles’ 1953 work A Picnic Cantata setting a libretto by James Schuyler.  It’s scored for two pianos and percussion plus a vocal cast of two sopranos and two altos.  It’s hyperrealistic in detail and surrealistic in time line.  The “plot” (roughly) is that friends decide to go on a Sunday picnic which is described in some detail, Then someone picks up the Sunday paper and starts to read bits from it.  Then there’s a sort of clearing up and clearing out.  Scene succeeds scene with almost breath-taking rapidity to complete a work that lasts less than half an hour

The music is highly eclectic.  There are impressionistic bits that sound a bit like Poulenc.  There are inevitable nods to Broadway. The mood changes rapidly from, for example, a very up tempo description of picnic ingredients to a gloom laden newspaper letter about a doomed affair.  It’s a bit weird, very much of its time, very New York and really rather fun.

The recording, made under the auspices of the New York Festival of Song (who apparently present this piece every year), was made in Merkin Hall in 2017 but has only just been released.  It features Steven Blier and Michael Barrett on piano, Barry Centanni on percussion plus sopranos Amy Owens and Chelsea Shephard with mezzos Amanda Lynn Bottoms and Naomi Louisa O’Connell.  It’s very slick, in the best sense of the word, and everybody seems entirely at home with the idiom.  (Should one want to check that the original mono cast recording from 1954 is still available).

I listened to a physical CD (16 bit 44.1kHz) and it was pretty vivid and detailed.  There’s no booklet as such but there’s useful information on the fold out sleeve.  There’s no libretto but it’s really not necessary.  The disk (or MP3) are available direct from NYFOS at this link.

This isn’t the most profound piece of music ever written but it is fun and the CD release is well done.


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