Five Borough Songbook is a project of the Five Boroughs Music Festival, a collective of musicians whose goal is to bring topnotch musical performances to parts of the city whose audiences aren't likely to have access to conventional Manhattan concert experiences. In 2011, the festival commissioned 20 New York-area composers to write songs about the city, and the result is an attractive assortment of vocal pieces. Half of the composers took advantage of having a number of singers available, and there are vocal duets, trios, and quartets as well as solos. Pianists Thomas Bagwell and Jocelyn Dueck and violinist Harumi Rhodes artfully negotiate the varied accompaniments. The soloists include sopranos Mireille Asselin and Martha Guth, mezzo-sopranos Meg Bragle and Blythe Gaissert, tenors Javier Abreu and Keith Jameson, and baritones Jesse Blumberg, Scott Dispensa, David McFerrin, and David Adam Moore. They perform with polish, complete investment in the music, and disarming youthful energy.
While there is considerable stylistic variety in the music, most of it still lies within the broad parameters of post-Modern lyricism, or, in some cases, a traditional post-Romanticism. In what is probably the most affecting and powerful piece, On Leaving Brooklyn, Yotam Haber uses four voices deployed chorally, accompanied by violin. Its minimalist-inflected harmonic stasis, a poignant balance of the acerbic and sweet, and its fragile, intricate textures beautifully convey the yearning of Julia Kasdorf's reimagining of Psalm 137's lament for Jerusalem. Other highlights include Ricky Ian Gordon's vibrant, brawny setting of Whitman's O City of Ships; Christina Courtin's intensely lyrical Fresh Kills; Daron Hagen's skillful, Broadway-tinged duet, The New Yorkers; Jorge Martín's exuberant honky-tonk City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys!, based on Whitman; Scott Wheeler's lovely, distinctive setting of Charles MacKay's At Home in Staten Island, for soprano and violin, which has the unmannered, memorable melodic directness of an Appalachian ballad; and Richard Pearson Thomas' giddily frenetic The Center of the Universe. The sound quality is adequate but not especially lively. The album offers an intriguing snapshot of the world of New York song at the end of the first decade of the century and should especially interest fans of new vocal music.