At opening night of the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, before flamenco musicians and dancers took the stage, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill announced that the festival was in line for a state grant of $125,000. The Community Capital Assistance funds will be released in 2015.
Now in its fifth year, the music festival has proved its viability to the point of receiving, for the first time, two substantial grants. According to treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Barbara Mellon-Kolb, a grant of $90,000, administered by the New York State Council on the Arts, enabled the festival to pay artists, including the four different orchestras and ensembles backing up performers in styles from Baroque to Latin American. Another $15,000 came from the O’Connor Foundation, a program based in Delaware County for the benefit of local non-profits.
Over five days, two politicians spoke briefly at the start of each evening performance, emphasizing the economic benefits of the festival, which brought an estimated 5000 audience members last year to spend money at local businesses and also provides work for musicians, many of them from our area. In a clever gesture, two of the speakers, State Senator James Seward and Rick Remsnyder of the Ulster County Development Corporation, on their respective nights, conducted the festival orchestra in renditions of the national anthem.
Economics aside, many audience members were heard to marvel at the presence of such skilled and powerful singing voices in the tiny Catskills town. While some residents stayed home to avoid the crowds and traffic, others threw themselves into work as volunteers, with two evenings of ushering, parking guidance, or food service earning them free admission to all the outdoor mainstage events at the Parish Field. Volunteers who helped construct the stage received T-shirts reading, “Build it and they will sing.”
“I never liked opera before,” said a Woodstocker who attended the performance of The Barber of Seville, “but I was curious, so I came, and I loved it.” After two years of high drama on festival Saturday nights, this year’s audience was treated to opera buffa. The style might be compared to Betty Boop meeting Laurel and Hardy in a Shakespeare comedy, with the emotions expressed in topnotch singing voices. Phoenicia resident and festival co-founder Maria Todaro sang Rosina with aplomb, deftly applying her acting skills to the role of a sullen, dreamy, coquettish teenager.
José Todaro, Maria’s father, who had his own show on French TV, gave a performance of Mediterranean popular songs that would not have been out of place in Las Vegas. A showman with a genius for engaging the audience, Todaro also has a formidable tenor voice.
The flamenco show drew a surprisingly large crowd for a Wednesday night, as Argentine performers, backed up by an orchestra, presented an exhilarating El Amor Brujo by Manuel De Falla. The festival’s Spanish theme gave cohesiveness to the five-day event and was echoed in a sublime performance of Spanish Renaissance music at the Catholic church by the 11-member a cappella Cambridge Singers.
Local writer/director/actor Carey Harrison’s new play, The Seven Favorite Maladies of Ludwig van Beethoven, provided a superb vehicle for pianist and festival co-organizer Justin Kolb. In the role of the hypochondriacal and increasingly deaf Beethoven, Kolb played two pieces, the “Appassionata” sonata and the dramatic and often dissonant “Ruins of Athens.” While the play was funny and clever, it seemed a bit thrown-together and under rehearsed, unlike Kolb’s masterful playing. Harrison, as Beethoven’s doctor, provided the vocal component, his mellifluous speaking voice always a pleasure to hear.
I had the privilege of participating in the final performance of the weekend as a member of one of several community choirs that united to sing Misa Criolla, an Argentine folk mass, conducted by Jorge Parodi, artistic director of New York City’s Opera Hispánica. Although I will never be able to sing like the soloists I heard this weekend, I felt blessed to spend time inside a piece of glorious music, with the support of highly talented professionals. Where else but in Phoenicia?