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The Hills are Alive… with the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice by Tad Wise

It was two Augusts ago that three internationally acclaimed opera singers hosted “Opera In the Park,” with the intention of raising funds to provide their second home—the village of Phoenicia—with a new playground. The bucolic setting, the amphitheater-like acoustics of the Parish park stage, the extraordinary talent, and a turnout of 700 resulted—despite operatic rain—in triumph. Magic was born and an encore demanded. As a result, last summer those very same singers, Kerry Henderson, Louis Otey, and Maria Todaro put together a three-day extravaganza constituting the first official Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, with a performance of Verdi’s Falstaff sung largely by members of the Metropolitan Opera, and the debut of an original composition by a descendant of Johann Sebastian Bach. Those highlights, plus jazz, gospel, and children’s concerts, conspired to make it the surprise hit of the season, enjoyed by over 3,000 concertgoers.

Thanks to those triumphs and subsequent outreach, this year the event has blossomed into the Phoenicia International Festival of The Voice. The success has been especially remarkable because, while the founders are adventurously welcoming of diversity, the mainstay of the festival remains classical singing, specifically opera.

Wait!—opera singers unleashed en masse in a town just west of Woodstock, just a few hours from New York? Isn’t that like holding a miniature Tour de France next door to the Indy 500? Not so. Opera singers summering (and, of course, singing) in the Catskills is a time-honored tradition, including the likes of Beverly Sills and Robert Merrill. And in case you hadn’t noticed, classical music “per se” is making a strong comeback in the Hudson Valley lately, especially with summer programs like the Maverick Concerts and American Symphony Orchestra director—and Bard College president—Leon Botstein’s Bard SummerScape both in high gear.

The Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice (PIFV) makes great use of Phoenicia’s tight-knit community. The most far-flung venue is the fully active Train Museum on Rte. 28; a superb location for children’s music featuring this year—and last—the much-loved Uncle Rock (Sa 8/6, 4 PM) and charming newcomers, Ralph and Ralph (Fr 8/5, 11:30 AM), the latter coordinated with old-fashioned train rides. Three local churches, as well as The Shandaken Theatrical Society Theater, will be put to fine use, and Mama’s Boy Coffee Shop kicks off the good time at the door. The main concert venue is, of course, Parish Park, from which those with v-v-v-ery large voices are able to resonate against the lower realms of Mt. Tremper.

The festival kicks off Thursday evening on the Parish Park stage with a gospel concert by Rozz Morehead (8/4, 7 PM), who has paid her Broadway, Off-Broadway, and back-up singer dues—this Star Search finalist brings her own full band, and is poised to make the leap to legend. Bright and early Friday morning, the “Latte Lecture” (8/5, 9 AM) at Mama’s Boy Cafe is a user-friendly talk for folks just getting to know opera. You will learn, for instance, the insider significance of Kerry Henderson and Louis Otey switching leading roles half way through Mozart’s Don Giovanni. (Hint: alter-ego.)

In the early afternoon, pianist extraordinaire Justin Kolb will be joined by fellow virtuosos Babette Hierholzer and Sylvia Buccelli, in a performance of an astounding original piano piece, played with six hands (Parish Park, Fr 8/5 1:30 PM, Sa 8/6, 2 PM). The loophole allowing them into a voice festival sounds suspiciously like a set-up for Woodstock’s own Mikhail Horowitz, known to resurrect the ghosts of hipsters ’n flipsters with his borscht-belt-on-acid review. And, rumor has it, Carey Harrison—son of Rex—will likewise regale us with his outrageous “Tales From The Golden Days of Hollywood,” or treat us to a sampler of his recent Woodstock hit play, Midget in a Catsuit Reciting Spinoza. It is most apropos that Mr. Harrison has been invited to an international festival for voice, as his chocolate-dipped-velvet speech remains the most gorgeous I’ve ever heard.

Later, David Bankston—singer of folk songs, field hollers, hymns, musical theatre, jazz standards and opera—will perform his one-man show The Kitchen Sink Cabaret (STS Playhouse, 4 PM), Then, over at the Wesleyan Church, Ann Osmond and Dennis Yerry team up as a jazz duo (5 PM). Although I can’t imagine we won’t get a listen to Mr. Yerry’s renowned compositions honoring Native Americans, as well.

The star of Day Two is world-renowned soprano Lauren Flanigan (Parish Park, 7.30 PM), who will lead other visiting operatic “voices of distinction” in exquisite song that evening. Ms. Flanigan, champion of both new opera and the near-forgotten, is, according to Time magazine, “The Thinking Man’s Diva.” Don’t miss her. Also over the next two days you’ll have the opportunity to hear The Paper Planet (Mama’s Boy, Sa 8/6, 3:15 PM), a nod to neighboring Woodstock featuring rockin’ reggae, as well reprises of earlier acts.

Two remarkable representatives of (tragically) opposed traditions will indeed bear witness to the healing power of song. Cantor Robert Esformes (Methodist Church, Sa 8/6, 5 PM) intones the liturgical melodies of ancient Jewish mysticism, his specialty being the music of the Sepharadi Jews—the descendants of the Jewish population dispersed from Spain, around the year that nation claimed ownership of “America” 1492 that is, or thereabouts. The following day, Simon Shaheen (Parish Park, Su 8/7, 2 PM) will deftly leap from traditional Arabic sounds to jazz and Western classical styles. His soaring technique, melodic ingenuity, and unparalleled grace have earned him international acclaim as a virtuoso on the oud and violin. Shaheen was honored at the White House in 1994.

A complete performance of the music of Mozart’s classic opera Don Giovanni (Parish Park, Sa 8/6, 7 PM) remains the most audacious undertaking of this year’s festival. Using the direct-to-fan/fan funded website pledgemusic.com—one of rock music’s most popular online backers—PIFV garnered more than sufficient funds to hire the 38-piece Woodstock Chamber Orchestra, which will have the honor of being conducted by Steven White of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met will likewise supply the majority of voices on the Parish stage as the complete opera closes Day Three.

However the true finale of the festival—utilizing no less than one hundred voices—will ring out from the park the following Sunday afternoon, Day Four (Parish Park, Su 8/7, 4:30 PM) when Vivaldi’s Gloria—quite different from Van the Man’s interpretation—is performed by four full choirs, with the pianists from all three town churches helping out.

Although tickets to all events are never more than 25 dollars, even if you don’t have the scratch, stop by Phoenicia on Sunday anyway. Because there will be no place in the entire town from which you will not be able to hear the entirety of Gloria.

Again, not the oldies “G-L-O-R-I-A” rock version. The even older…and louder one.



The Second Annual Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice is the weekend of August 5 through 7, in various locations around the town of Phoenicia. Please visit www.phoeniciavoicefest.com or call 845.586.3588 for tickets, scheduling, and location information. Most events are handicap friendly, especially with advance notice.



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