Saturday, June 29, 2013

Opera News reviews American Portraits

Andrew Garland: "American Portraits"
spacerSong cycles by Cipullo, Heggie, Laitman, Paulus; Loewy, piano. No texts. GPR
recordings garland cover 713
This collection of four contemporary song cycles by American composers merits repeated listening, for the works themselves as well as for the highly accomplished performances by baritone Andrew Garland and pianist Donna Loewy. Garland, a highly communicative performer with an attractive, clear, ringing tone, has wowed New York Festival of Song audiences and appeared successfully in opera (largely Mozart, Rossini and American works) at NYCO, Fort Worth, Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Clearly, song literature is one of his strengths; he bids fair to continue the tradition of such connoisseurs' singers as Donald Gramm, Sanford Sylvan and William Stone in this still-expanding repertory.
The cycles — by composers born in the dozen years 1949–61 — are in recognizable, tonal idioms, influenced by Barber, Bernstein, Britten and Poulenc but each with its own composer's stamp. They include: Jake Heggie's Moon is a Mirror, to poems by Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931), given its premiere by Bryn Terfel in 2001; Stephen Paulus's Heartland Portrait, dedicated to and first performed by Thomas Hampson (2005), with texts by Ted Kooser (b. 1939); Lori Laitman's 2000 Men with Small Heads, originated by David Daniels and here transposed, with verse by Thomas Lux (b. 1946); and America 1968, a 2008 group by Tom Cipullo, words by Robert Hayden (1913–80), commissioned by Garland and Loewy. Garland's diction is exceptionally clear and well-inflected, but for such a project, the lack of texts represents a serious oversight, unfair to listeners (especially non-native speakers) and to the poets, composers and performers alike.
Heggie's engaging cycle pushes no stylistic envelopes but captures with remarkable fidelity the plain-spoken Lindsay poems, five life-revealing responses by man and beast to the moon. Garland's utterance is very keen here, though a few of the words ("burning," "ants") sound too contemporary in inflection for the implicit early-twentieth-century context. He skillfully handles the melismatic lines demanded by "The Old Horse and the City." "What the Forester Said" shows a seamless legato that suddenly betrays a small crack, surely warranting a retake. Paulus's songs call for expert impressionist pianism. Kooser's long-phrased verses, quite moving, sometimes elude natural-sounding musical scansion, but "At Midnight" packs a wallop, and the lyrical "Porch Swing in September" is pleasing. Baritone and pianist both capture the right tone for Laitman's musically allusive, thoughtfully calibrated yet crowd-pleasing treatment of Lux's drolly observed quotidian pictures. The Cipullo cycle offers the highest drama (Hayden's takes on America's decade of social change can be almost graphically violent) and the most challenging vocal line, with many leaps to register extremes, unlike Heggie and Laitman's more center-based tessitura. Other baritones may struggle to equal Garland's bravura performance here. The cycle concludes with a heartfelt evocation of Frederick Douglass's legacy; its final parlando utterance seems miscalculated on a recording; perhaps it works heard live? Loewy, a sensitive pianist with a clear tone capable of impressive dynamic gradation, is full partner in the whole enterprise. spacer

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