Manhattan Serenade – Celia Berk

On April 3 the much acclaimed Celia Berk performed, again at the Metropolitan Room, to introduce her new CD (released April 1), Manhattan Serenade. Berk, winner of a 2015 Bistro Award, a 2015 MAC Award for female debut and the 2015 Margaret Whiting Award (among others), was also recognized for her debut album You Can’t Rush Spring – which was nominated for MAC’s 2015 LaMott Friedman Award for Best Recording. There are reasons to prefer a live show to a recording; and reasons to prefer a recording to a live show. What one gains in polish may be lost in spontaneity. Gains in precision may be traded for a loss in electricity and warmth.  Each has merits. This note is less a review than a contrast of the experiences.

I first heard Berk in live performance in 2015 and was immediately won over: see WAT Review. I subsequently heard the corresponding (debut) CD: You Can’t Rush Spring. I was blown away by both the material and the delivery. But a single point in the firmament, however lofty, gives no clue as to a trajectory so I awaited this second recording with a sense of anticipation. Remarkably, both CDs grow in appeal with repeated hearings as fresh nuances come to light. And both CDs reflect a scholarly curiosity (credited collectively to Alex Rybeck and Berk) for unearthing intriguing, little known gems. Manhattan Serenade is pursued with complete commitment by all involved. The liner notes (mostly by Berk and Rybeck) are personal, informative and, to me, an integral part of the CD. The musicality and deep experience of the creative team at work on Manhattan Serenade is so apparent that I am loath to second guess them – although that is in part the reviewers’ role.  Nonetheless, at the end of the day, for pure self-indulgence I prefer the first CD.  Having said that, Manhattan Serenade is arguably the more imposing work – for the variety of styles, the luminary supporting players and the novelty of the constituent works.

IMG_0332_BerkBerk is in her sophomore year of professional cabaret work but has been a student of the musical arts for years. As was apparent from her earlier performances and debut CD, this is a woman of remarkable emotive fluency – capable of putting a smile, a smirk or a wink into the last third of a syllable, and equipped with a rich alto instrument under intelligent and precise control. Her classical training is suggested by her vocal quality but rarely betrayed by operatic nuance – and that only in the service of the music or humor.  And unlike so much contemporary music, every lyric is articulated and given meaning by an experienced sensibility. But there is little melodrama here; the fireworks are largely cerebral. To quote Sondheim, “It’s a quiet thing”.

Alex Rybeck is Berk’s musical director, and the arranger of every track on the CD, and the CD is as much his product as Berk’s. To my ears, a couple of tracks are stylistic outliers (notably Goffin and King’s “Up On The Roof” and Kander and Ebb’s “All I Need”), but they add welcome texture. And they do adhere to the theme of the CD (termed by Berk a “Valentine to New York”).  Despite the theme, there is no narrative arc – so anything goes provided only that it has a colorable Manhattan connection. As such the CD is, indeed, a “connoisseur’s compilation” (David Zippel) of exotic tidbits where many might prefer, for a listening experience, a more coherent unity. But if you know Berk’s work to date, you know that is not how she cooks – and you will not leave the table hungry after enjoying this menu degustation.

The recordings include only four pieces (of 13) with which I was familiar – notwithstanding the notable pedigrees of the creators: David Heneker; Kander and Ebb; Goffin and King; Bacharach and Simon; Irving Berlin; Weill and Hughes; Weill and Coslow, Rupert Holmes, Whiting, Arnold and Kahn; Rodgers and Hart; Alter and Adamson, Scibetta and Reach; Coleman and Zippel. That, in itself, is entertaining, edifying and worth the price of admission for those who seek to deepen their musical experience.

IMG_0352_BerkThe recording opens with an apt intro for its theme: David Honeker’s “Manhattan Hometown” (from the 1983 musical Peg – which could well play behind the credits of Woody Allen’s next NYC movie), and closes with a similarly apt (and beautifully and simply arranged) “A Tree in the Park” by Rodgers and Hart. Between the two, musical styles and content run a gamut (and a bit amok). “All I Need” has a Latin rhythm with bongos; “Up On the Roof” has flute and guitar accompaniment to a soft jazz/waltz tempo; “Seconds,” written for the unmade film version of Promises, Promises has a recognizably Bacharach-ian Broadway orchestration; Berlin’s “Manhattan Madness”(featuring Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks Combo Orchestra) evokes the “big band” thirties; Weill’s “Lonely House” is rendered as a “jazz aria”; backup vocals color some arrangements. The musical choices are intriguing and usually surprising. To the aficionado, each piece may be a gem.  Nonetheless, when mounted together, they do not make a tiara – except perhaps in the East Village. And if that is your sensibility, this recording is also for you.

The Met Room performance which intro’ed the CD presented a somewhat different face. The notorious warmth of the performer, and the tiniest bit of residual nervousness in delivering patter, come through in the intimate space and add depth to the performance, as did the tangible affection in the room for Berk herself.  But the voice, in person as well as on the recording, remains rich, precisely tailored and with an unusual and appealing timbre.

IMG_0318_BerkThe show is directed by Jeff Harnar and accompanied by the ephemeral “Manhattan Serenade Symphonette” comprising Dan Gross on percussion, Dan Willis on woodwinds, Jered Egan on bass and Alex Rybeck at the piano, doing yeoman work to replicate the various tonalities on the CD. The encore, alone, Coleman and Zippel’s “The Broadway Song,” was sung to the CD music track in order to include the full instrumental richness captured there and a star-studded vocal backup (Josh Dixen, Kristoffer Lowe and director Jeff Harnar).

The live performance included a few numbers not included on the CD.  One, “The Party Upstairs” (Ronny Whyte and Francesca Blumenthal), was a particularly appropriate New York number focusing, as it does, on the intrusive entertainments of the upstairs neighbor – from which the singer is excluded.  And like “Seconds” (on the CD but not in the live show) it provides a poignant ending by illuminating an unexpected alternate meaning of the lyric. (I would have liked to have that on the recording.)  Also not on the CD but in the air were “Such a Wonderful Town” (Whiting and Arnold) reprising a comedic number from Berk’s Met Room debut and the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You.”

The CD lacks the patter that makes a live performance personal and, often, funny. From the stage, Berk offered New York-centric anecdotes including the tale of her having arrived in NYC with her theater degree and immediately getting a job in a bakery.  There she was privileged to serve Betty Comden a choice selection of rugelach accompanied by a (presumably sotto voce) rendition of “Bake someone happy, bake just one someone happy . . . and I can cook too!”   And there is no doubt that Berk can cook, and will – each Sunday in April at the Metropolitan Room.

Photos by Fred R. Cohen; his website: Fred Cohen Photography 

Click to purchase  You Can’t Rush Spring on Amazon.

About Fred R. Cohen (45 Articles)
Fred Cohen, a NYC-based photographer, has been taking pictures for over four decades. His work has been published by Harry N. Abrams, Time Magazine and The New York Times. He does commissioned work and sells images from his extensive library. You can see his more casual work on face book and are welcome to visit his website at http://fredcohenphotography.weebly.com/.