New tunes, and old, about the birds and the bees

November 6, 2013

Themes and programs constantly change at the Chicago Humanities Festival, but some attractions keep coming back like a song.

Among them, the annual William and Greta Wiley Flory Concert stands out, for it amounts to a recurring feast of songwriting. The music and lyrics never stay the same, but the craft remains consistently high.

Certainly that was the case Tuesday night at Francis W. Parker School, where Chicago singers convened to explore repertoire reflecting the “Animal” theme of the 24th annual festival, a vast subject that has inspired all manner of tunesmiths.

Though one never tires of classics by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin, it was the newly commissioned work that ultimately distinguished this concert. For most of these premieres of tunes and arias by Chicago composers proved surprisingly effective, suggesting that the art of literate, impeccably honed songwriting has not died yet.

The tour de force came early in the evening, with Cheryl Coons and Beckie Menzie’s “Don’t Bug Me,” the wittiest, funniest, wickedest song of the night, new or old. To say that the piece chronicles the somewhat bizarre, somewhat universal mating habits of the praying mantis ‚Äì from one particularly perturbed creature’s point of view ‚Äì doesn’t quite do justice to the wild world of slimy bug love. The lyrics alone, which include sound effects one previously hadn’t thought either insects or people could produce, deserve a place in an audio library somewhere.

But musically, too, “Don’t Bug Me” caught human ears by surprise, this ode to primordial lovemaking unfolding on something close to an operatic scale. One strange section led to another and another, until you had no idea where any of this was headed yet realized you were transfixed by the intimacies of the mating rituals of insects.

Perhaps only the songwriters themselves could possibly have delivered such an eccentric piece, which is not likely to enter the standard repertory any time soon. But with Coons squeaking and squawking the lyrics and Manzie egging her on from the piano, there was no doubt that this evening had reached an odd but appealing artistic high point.

We must hear this song again.

Alan Schmuckler’s “Sparrow” struck a different chord entirely, the song’s simple, straightforward, heartfelt exploration of love and loss applicable to wild life and humans alike. Singer Skyler Adams may not have the biggest or most polished voice, but there was no escaping the utter honesty of his delivery.

Unfortunately, the indispensable Chicago singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks penned such a sour, dour song with “No Life on Earth” that even his ebullient delivery ‚Äì in tandem with Bethany Thomas ‚Äì could not bring it to life. Singer-songwriter Michael Mahler conjured Buddy Holly-like energy and earnestness with a salute to penguins titled “Precious Cargo,” but his over-amplified guitar playing nearly drowned out the too thin, too high-pitched vocals of Dara Cameron, thereby diminishing the potential impact of an otherwise unmistakably attractive piece.

And then there were the classics, one of which ‚Äì Porter’s “Let’s Do It” ‚Äì contains the lyric that inspired the evening’s title, “Birds Do It, Bees Do It…”

What a pleasure to hear Cory Jamison, a former Chicagoan, back in town performing music of Hoagy Carmichael, which she recorded definitively in her 1999 album “Here’s to Hoagy.” On this night, Jamison revived a medley from that disc, “Baltimore Oriole” and “Skylark,” her reedy voice and unpretentious, jazz-tinged delivery ideally suited to Carmichael’s aesthetic. She needs to return here more often.

The most accomplished duo in Chicago cabaret, singer-pianist Menzie and vocalist Tom Michael, showed that “Glow Worm” and “The Inch Worm” aren’t just kid stuff, thanks to the ardor of their singing and the radiant blending of their voices. Joan Curto dug down into her lowest, throatiest register for a slow, sensuous and deeply meaningful version of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners.” And Felicia P. Fields brought the spirit and the style of the church to “Hound Dog.”

Pianist Doug Peck hardly could have played more idiomatically in material that spanned many genres, but Rob Lindley and Molly Brennan’s narration and ad libs showed how difficult it is to be clever on stage, particularly when the subject is sex (or at least animal courtship).

In the end, though, the music mattered most, and, thanks to this event, we’ll always have “Don’t Bug Me.”

Twitter @howardreich