October 28, 2021

(+++) VOICES WITH A PURPOSE

American Art Songs by Gene Scheer, Arthur Farwell, William Grant Still, Kurt Weill, John Musto, Richard Hageman, Florence Price, Jake Heggie, Carrie Jacob-Bonds, Ricky Ian Gordon, Stephen Foster, Dan Emmett, and Robert Lowry. Lucas Meacham, baritone; Irina Meacham, piano. Rubicon Classics. $19.98.

Clarice Assad: Confessions; Gilda Lyons: Songs of Lament and Praise; Tom Cipullo: How to Get Heat without Fire; Amy Beth Kirsten: To See What I See; Michael Djupstrom: Three Teasdale Songs; Libby Larsen: Righty,1966. Laura Strickling, soprano; Joy Schreier, piano. Andelain Records. $19.99.

Daron Hagen: Rapture and Regret; Suite for Piano; Vegetable Verselets; Five Nocturnes; Muldoon Songs. Ariana Wyatt, soprano; Brian Thorsett, tenor; Benjamin Wyatt, cello; Tracy Cowden, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

American Choral Works by Alexander Lloyd Blake, Cristian Larios, Shawn Kirchner, Paul Simon, Joseph Trapanese, Roman GianArthur, Sam Cooke, Alex Wurman, Joel Thompson, and Melissa Dunphy. Tonality conducted by Alexander Lloyd Blake. Tonality and Aerocade Music. $12.97.

     It is reasonable to wonder whether the so-called “art song” still exists, and in particular whether it exists in the United States, with English words. Most more-of-less classically structured and informed songs of recent times, whether for individual singers or for groups, seem to have reasons for being other than music (certainly in addition to music); and expressiveness often seems to be a secondary consideration, after such matters as advocacy, political assertion, societal criticism, inclusiveness based on background or skin tone, and so forth. Some performers do a better job than others of mixing musicality with whatever form of change they may be propounding, though. Lucas Meacham’s flexible, finely honed baritone and his willingness to perform music written a century ago and more set his new Rubicon Classics release above many whose viewpoints and approaches are far narrower. The underlying concept of this disc is 100% advocacy: the proceeds go to a foundation created by Meacham and his pianist wife, Irina Meacham, to promote “diversity in classical music,” which refers not to diverse performance styles but to judging performers based on their skin color or ethnicity. But the disc can be heard and appreciated simply for the music, whether or not one unquestioningly accepts its reason for being. Two of the most impressive songs here are traditional ones: Oh Shenandoah as arranged by Irina Meacham and Steve White, and In the Mornin’ as arranged by Charles Ives. Lucas Meacham emphasizes the hymnlike aspects of both these pieces to impressive effect. Stephen Foster, the marvelous songsmith now rarely performed because he lived when slavery was part of American life, is represented by Hard Times Come Again No More, a little-known song of considerable beauty in its heartfelt lament. There are also two Aaron Copland arrangements here, of The Boatman’s Dance by Dan Emmett and At the River by Robert Lowry, the first offering a slow opening well-contrasted with its succeeding section, the second being a very slow rendition of the well-known words about the river “that flows by the throne of God.” Kurt Weill’s Beat! Beat! Drums! (from Four Walt Whitman Songs) is another highlight, and one giving the piano a more-prominent role than elsewhere on the disc – to very fine effect, especially in light of a vocal line that straddles singing and declamation. These songs are far more involving, most of them in their subtleties of words as well as music, than such more-insistent pieces as Gene Scheer’s American Anthem and Richard Hageman’s The Rich Man. Because this disc’s focus on a hope for a greater sense of togetherness is more of a subtext than a strident demand, the performers are able to put their feelings across effectively through many of the works they choose to offer here.

     Feelings with an inward, personal focus rather than any outward-looking intent are the core of Laura Strickling’s performances on a new Andelain Records release. This is a disc for listeners who share the specific worries, concerns and uncertainties reflected in the contemporary songs presented by Strickling, with assistance from pianist Joy Schreier. The words are paramount in Clarice Assad’s Confessions, whose worries and pop-music sound are distinctly of the 21st century. Gilda Lyons’ Songs of Lament and Praise seeks more universality, including laments by Eve and a mother, Hymn to the Archangel Michael, and more – the work tries rather too hard for significance but has some intriguing vocal writing. Tom Cipullo’s How to Get Heat without Fire is somewhat over-earnest and a bit too focused on vocal display – the music seems a tad of a distraction, notably in the middle songs, Saying Goodbye and The Pocketbook. Michael Djupstrom’s Three Teasdale Songs are about affairs of the heart, but the mundane words make them less communicative than is presumably intended (“I cannot sleep: the night is hot and empty”). The Assad, Lyons, Cipullo and Djupstrom works are cycles; also here are two individual songs. To See What I See by Amy Beth Kirsten cannot quite decide whether it is Shakespearean or contemporary. Righty, 1966 by Libby Larsen incorporates a flute (played by Sarah Eckman McIver) and sees baseball as a metaphor for life – a bit of a stretch, to say the least. Strickling sings everything with feeling and involvement; the question for listeners is whether her personal expression of her personal feelings will be close enough to their own so that the disc – or at least some of its components – will communicate intimacy and emotion effectively, or whether the totality will come across as belaboring thoughts and concerns that are too commonplace to be treated with the extended pathos offered here.

     The issue is somewhat similar when it comes to the three Daron Hagen song cycles on a new MSR Classics release. Hagen certainly wants these pieces to be taken seriously as art songs. Rapture and Regret (1987) offers two contrasting pieces to words by, respectively, Virginia Woolf and Isak Dinesen, and the work is scored for soprano, cello and piano – an aurally attractive combination that produces dark hues throughout and underlines the intended sensitivity of both songs. Vegetable Verselets (2011), for soprano and piano, includes eight brief songs that would seem, on the face of it, to be much lighter fare than the Woolf/Dinesen material (among these songs are The Regiment, Boston Bean, and The Opera). But Hagen brings to these comparative trifles the same seriousness of interconnection between voice and piano, the same balance and contrast, that he includes in Rapture and Regret. The result is a rather strange set of pieces, in which the piano part is often more interesting than the vocal one (for instance, in The Elopement). Hagen chooses a different vocal range for the seven Muldoon Songs (1992). These are for tenor and piano – with words by Paul Muldoon – and Hagen here creates some songs that are very brief indeed: Blemish runs 19 seconds, Mink 20, Vico 58. The words get the focus here, the piano cast almost entirely in a supportive role; it is only the final, longest song, Holy Thursday, that reaches out effectively to present an emotional landscape to which listeners are likely to resonate. One welcome aspect of this disc is its inclusion of two Hagen piano works to separate the song cycles – and to give pianist Tracy Cowden a more-prominent role than the cycles offer in support of soprano Ariana Wyatt and tenor Brian Thorsett. One solo-piano piece is Suite for Piano (2009), a short four-movement work alternating jauntiness with gentleness. The other work for piano is Five Nocturnes (2012), and the title says it all: the works are on the dissonant side, but most are satisfactory examples of contemporary “night music,” although the second and fourth have a jauntiness that is not in keeping with the traditional definition of a nocturne. This disc, like the one featuring Laura Strickling, certainly aspires to something approaching universality in its vocal elements, trying through the chosen words and musical settings to engage the audience in experiences held in common, with which the composers and interpreters can communicate what they think of as widely shared human experiences – not ones expected to transform society, but ones reflecting societal elements that could become the basis for greater understanding among people and thus lay the foundation for change through comprehension.

     At the opposite extreme from this approach is the one on a new CD from the ensemble Tonality. The sole reason for being of this disc is specific advocacy for specified groups of people – an advocacy rooted in defining people first and foremost as group members rather than as individuals, as do the Hagen-composed and Strickland-performed CDs. There is nothing here except sociopolitical exploration and demands, and there is no room for individuality of consideration of people or individual expression of performed material: it is wholly fitting that this is a choral disc. So Alexander Lloyd Blake’s 1232 Lyfe exists only to condemn perceived injustices in treatment of criminals; two Joseph Trapanese tracks called New Collective Consciousness I and II have environmental activism of the “change must happen instantly” variety as their sole purpose; Roman GianArthur’s Build Me Up is strictly for Black Lives Matter; Alex Wuman’s No, Child. No Child is for members of the LGBTQ+ community; and so on. The actual performances on the disc are heartfelt and often moving, but they are really not the point here. Most of this almost-hour of music exists to encourage people who already think a certain way to continue thinking that way and not to engage in any dialogue or other communication with anyone who may question matters or see them differently – certainly not anyone taking a more-nuanced view of issues than the sincere but distinctly na├»ve one on display here. Interestingly, Shawn Kirchner’s Tulips, with words by Sylvia Plath, and Nathan Heldman’s arrangement of Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, the two most-personal, least overtly “socially conscious” tracks on the CD, are far more involving than the more-strident, more-dogmatic pieces: these two works, like the art songs presented by Lucas Meacham and Irina Meacham, use the individual and the individual experience as a gateway to something larger – refusing to define people by their physical appearances, backgrounds, sexuality or other characteristics, instead exploring elements of common experience through which change can happen organically, rather than being imposed through dogma and demands disguised as music.

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