September 12, 2019
(++++) VOCALS, VARIED
Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem; Mason Bates: Children of Adam. Michelle Areyzaga, soprano; Kevin Deas, bass-baritone; Richmond Symphony Chorus and Richmond Symphony conducted by Steven Smith. Reference Recordings. $16.98.
Evan Williams: Emily’s House; Katherine Bodor: Absent an Adjustment; Evan Mack: Preach Sister, Preach. Katherine Jolly, soprano; Emily Yap Chua, piano; Christa Cole, violin; Rachel Mossburg, viola; Samantha Johnson-Helms, clarinet; Per Bjørkling, double bass. Navona. $14.99.
Lela Kaplowitz: Songs. Lela Kaplowitz, vocals; Elvis Penava, guitars; Dado Marinković, drums and percussion; Joe Kaplowitz, organ, piano, bass, cajón and back vocals; Marko First, violin; Davor Križić, trumpet, Lucia Kaplowitz, tap. Big Round Records. $14.99.
Sarah Rodgers: The Roaring Whirl—Music Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Character “Kim.” Bhasker Patel, narrator; Geraldine Allen, clarinet; Baluji Shrivastav, sitar, tabla and pakhavaj; Timothy Walker, guitar. Métier. $17.99.
Jennifer Fowler: Line Spun with Stars; Lady Maisry; Letter from Haworth; Streaming Up; From the Cave Mouth; Lament. Raphaela Papadakis, soprano; Lauren Easton, mezzo-soprano; Lontano conducted by Odaline de la Martínez. Métier. $17.99.
The tenuous connection between Vaughan Williams’ cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (1936) and Mason Bates’ Children of Adam (2018) lies in the composers’ use of the words of Walt Whitman, although neither work is drawn wholly from Whitman’s poetry. Vaughan Williams, writing with the memory of World War I still fresh and the ominous rumblings of another war becoming louder, combined texts from the Mass with three Whitman poems, a political speech, and bits of the Bible. In so doing he produced a highly moving plea for peace, in which the recurrent Agnus Dei theme of the opening part is used to unify a work whose middle is drawn from three Whitman poems, the first describing war’s disruption of civilian life, the second underlining the common humanity of those who are enemies in wartime, and the third offering a dirge for a father and son who have both died in war. After this, Vaughan Williams quotes from a speech by British politician John Bright (1811-1889) in futile opposition to the Crimean War, followed by quotes from the Book of Jeremiah – against which Dona nobis pacem is juxtaposed. And then the cantata concludes somewhat more optimistically, using, among other things, a setting in English of the Gloria from the Mass and, at the very end, yet another Dona nobis pacem plea. The elegant orchestration and skillful use of voices make this a very moving work when it is well performed, as it is on a new Reference Recordings disc featuring the Richmond Symphony Chorus and Richmond Symphony conducted by Steven Smith. Soloists Michelle Areyzaga and Kevin Deas handle their parts with both musical and emotional involvement, and Smith sets them off very well against the choral and orchestral forces. Yet despite their mutual use of Whitman’s poetry, Vaughan Williams and Bates do not fit together especially well, even for bicentennial purposes (Whitman was born in 1819). Bates uses Whitman’s line about “children of Adam” as connective tissue in a work that is far more celebratory than Dona nobis pacem and that bends over rather far to be inclusive, adding to Whitman elements from Carl Sandburg, two Psalms, Genesis, and – the longest section – a text from the Mataponi Indians of Virginia. Bates, like Vaughan Williams, orchestrates his work extensively and uses the instrumentation skillfully. He handles percussion especially well, notably in the Sandburg section of the piece. But while Vaughan Williams’ entire structure is tight, using the repeated words Dona nobis pacem to beg for peace for us, all of us, Bates’ work is more sprawling and more surface-level in its appeal. It is more self-consciously outgoing, more of a proclamation than an exploration – certainly quite effective in its own way, and performed just as well by the Richmond musicians as is Vaughan Williams’ cantata, but lacking the earlier composer’s emotional heft and his way of penetrating to the core of what unites all of humanity despite the many instances in which people turn against each other. The very fine interpretations on this very well recorded disc do much to put across the composers’ distinct and distinctive use of the words to the best possible effect. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting element of this release is the way it shows Whitman’s poetry being turned to such different purposes by two very different composers. Clearly there is much in Whitman that was musically inspirational in the 1930s and remains so today.
A different “American original” poet, Emily Dickinson, provides the words for Evan Williams’ Emily’s House on a new Navona CD. Many of the 10 Dickinson poems used here are quite familiar, having been set by other composers – from The bee is not afraid of me to I’m nobody! Who are you? Williams’ idea is to set the words as if they are being sung by Dickinson herself, thereby painting a portrait of Emily’s house – construed possibly as a physical place, possibly as the place where Dickinson lived internally, in her mind. The idea is, however, more interesting than the execution: although most of the poems are short – three lasting less than a minute and three others less than two – the settings tend to make them seem more drawn-out than they really are. And some of Williams’ decisions on settings are rather odd, such as repeating “the bee” four times as if to make the words portentous, which Dickinson did not intend them to be. The piano’s involvement is sometimes quite effective, as in These are the days when Birds come back, the longest of these songs. But at other times, the piano is used only perfunctorily. And the overall sound of the song cycle is rather shapeless, with the words tending to be set more for display purposes than for clarity. The cycle has many pleasant moments and some effective tone painting, notably in Glee! The great storm is over! But despite the fine attempts of Katherine Jolly and Emily Yap Chua to bring Williams’ cycle cohesiveness, its totality is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Unlike Dickinson’s highly personal poetry, Absent an Adjustment is a socioeconomic and political treatise, based on a New York Magazine article on climate change by David Wallace-Wells that has been both praised for its forthrightness and condemned for its extremely alarmist tone. Katherine Bodor is quite clearly in tune (so to speak) with the piece, creating a dark and dismal-sounding extended setting (more than eight minutes long) that essentially says that every single thing individual humans as well as companies, countries and political systems do brings Earth closer to uninhabitability unless every single individual, company and country takes immediate action to deal with the issue. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” says the text at one point, and that appears to be the main point that Bodor wishes to drive home in her setting – which takes a hectoring and impatient tone throughout and eventually attempts slight uplift, to little argumentative or musical effect despite the use here not of piano but of a quartet containing violin, viola, clarinet and double bass. The third work on this (+++) disc is, like Williams’, a song cycle: Evan Mack’s Preach Sister, Preach, which explores what it means to be a woman with some serious words and some lighter ones, a combination that makes the topic more approachable than Bodor ever manages to make hers. It helps, to be sure, that Mack chooses pithy comments by women from various time periods: Simone de Beavoir, Daphne du Maurier and George Eliot rub shoulders here, figuratively speaking, with Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Ann Landers, Tina Fey, Ellen DeGeneres and others. This is another soprano-and-piano work and another with snippets of thought, epigrams rather than anything more extensive – with the result that of the 14 movements, only the last runs a smidgen over two minutes, with eight lasting less than a minute and the remaining four just a bit over that. The jazziness used for Mae West’s comments, the torch-song-and-scat elements used for Gilda Radner’s, the throwaway cuteness for one of the two Lucille Ball bon mots, are just some of the ways in which Mack differentiates the comments and keeps the material interesting. This is the most successful work on the CD, not lacking substance yet communicating its thoughts effectively by not trying to bludgeon listeners into accepting them. Mack also does a better job than Williams or Bodor of making the accompaniment to the vocals an integral part of her piece.
The pacing of the various Lela Kaplowitz songs on a (+++) Big Round Records CD is variable, but the 11 songs’ harmonic structure is musically almost identical. This is essentially pop music, with all the pluses and minuses that the designation implies: very simple harmonies, easy-to-listen-to themes and rhythms, a strong focus on intelligibility of lyrics, and words that are filled with the standard clichés of happiness and hope, here overcoming worry and woe. Listeners hear “You melted my soul, slow like honey” in You Gave Me Wings, “The whole world’s a family” in Human Tapestry, “There nothing you can’t do” in Everything Is Possible, “Now I’m ready for my voice to be heard” in 300 Years of Silence, and much more of the same in Liila, Love Is All There Is, Dreamland, You Will See, With Every Breath, Love Prayer, and Chant to One. The accompaniments of Kaplowitz’ vocals are essentially mild jazz, sometimes upbeat but more often middle-tempo to slow. The words are generally intended to provide uplift, to show that there are difficulties in life but that is best quickly to move past them, to assert one’s ability to overcome adversity by maintaining a positive attitude. Kaplowitz has a pleasant if not very distinguished voice, and it neatly fits music that is also pleasant but not very distinguished. Nothing here is revelatory either musically or in terms of human communication, and nothing is intended to be. The CD is a pleasant enough diversion for listeners who enjoy jazz-inflected pop expressiveness, but does not offer any material memorable enough to repay repeated hearings.
A (+++) Métier CD of the music of Sarah Rodgers is more interesting both conceptually and in execution, although it requires familiarity with Rudyard Kipling to be fully effective. Here the voice is that of a narrator rather than a singer, while the music comes from a chamber group containing both Western and Indian instruments – an intriguing combination. Bhasker Patel makes a compelling narrator of the verbal material, from the wonder of daybreak and Kim’s morning perceptions in India Awakes to the boy’s joy during a lengthy walk in Seventh Heaven: “Kim’s bright eyes were open wide. This broad, smiling river of life, he considered, was a vast improvement on the cramped and crowded Lahore streets.” The purely musical material is dominated by the sounds of the instruments of India, but they are not used to create a false sense of exoticism – rather, they are employed to illustrate the narrative and comment upon it, and they fit that role quite well. The scenes continue with Little Friend of All the World, The Roaring Whirl, The Wheel of Life, The Man under the Hat, and Golden Spokes of the Sloping Sun. Not so much a musical presentation as an impressionistic addition to Kipling’s often-perceptive observational writings about Kim and India, the CD is very much a specialty item: a story with music rather than a musical story. Lasting more than an hour, the disc requires attentiveness throughout to absorb its intermingling of verbiage and musical illustration to best effect. And the specific relationship between the musical material and the words is far from obvious – Rodgers does not appear to intend the connection to be a close one. “He considered his own identity until his head swam,” for example, does not lead to any material that seems to show uncertainty or an attempt to find balance within the big world – it simply results in one nicely paced and well-played chamber section among many. “It was all pure delight,” Patel narrates at one point, and while that may be true for Kim’s experiences as Kipling and Rodgers tell them, it is less so for this presentation: fans of Kipling will find this illustrative journey at least intermittently fascinating, but only the most dedicated will likely enjoy every one of its steps.
Vocals are present in just half of the pieces on another new (+++) Métier CD, this one featuring world première recordings of six works by Jennifer Fowler. Lady Maisry is a very extended (12-and-a-half-minute) work for soprano and piano, in which the voice enters after a 90-second piano introduction written in standard contemporary style, which is to say it is disconnected and without a tonal center. The vocal elements are more Sprechstimme than song, the voice being treated instrumentally, essentially as a piano partner, rather than as central to the piece, which would have been more effective at half its length or less. The same may be said of Letter from Haworth, which is actually a minute longer than Lady Maisry and features a mezzo-soprano. Here the material is somewhat more interesting, however, largely because the accompaniment includes clarinet and cello as well as piano, and the broader soundscape results in a more-involving tonal palette even though Fowler’s basic style is the same: there is no attempt to create music that is either illustrative of the words or a commentary on them. Letter from Haworth does not even bring the voice in for two-and-a-half minutes, at which point the opening words (“Mr. Taylor has returned”) prove scarcely worth the wait. Lauren Easton’s rich voice serves this music well, but she, like Raphaela Papadakis, is at the mercy of material that is not really designed to showcase anyone’s vocal qualities. Papadakis gets an additional chance in From the Cave Mouth, which is for soprano, clarinet and violin, and which is the longest vocal work of all on the CD, running more than 15 minutes. But while the accompaniment is more effective here than it is when Fowler uses piano – she has a good sense of the atmospheric possibilities of clarinet and violin – the work just does not wear well, meandering and swooning seemingly at random without communicating much of anything very meaningfully. The three non-vocal pieces on the disc are, on the whole, more substantive, although Line Spun with Stars – for flute, cello and piano – could have made its points in a good deal less than its 15-and-a-half minutes. The instruments here do not so much play together or play off each other as they play their individual sections, which are frequently solos, and intersect from time to time for no apparent reason. The two remaining works here are the shortest on the disc and, partly for that reason, the most appealing. Streaming Up is for flute, oboe, clarinet, cello, and piano, and unlike most of the rest of Fowler’s works on the CD, it starts with several instruments playing together, propelling the material forward and resulting in some instrumental combinations that are interesting to hear even though, taken as a whole, the piece does not seem to make any particular point. Still, the members of the ensemble Lontano, who handle all the music on the disc skillfully and with apparent commitment to Fowler’s style, make Streaming Up particularly interesting simply because its athematic atonality is entertainingly passed among the five players. The CD concludes with Lament, for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, and this work too has interesting aural elements, largely because it is the only one on the disc using the bassoon. That instrument nicely underpins the higher winds – which in turn are often called upon to play in their lower ranges, resulting in a sound mixture that works well even though it does not reflect the work’s title in any significant way. Fowler’s music is an acquired taste: listeners who generally enjoy contemporary chamber compositions may want to give it a try, although it will not likely lure in anyone who has previously sampled works written with typical modern techniques and has found those pieces wanting.