September 01, 2022

(+++) VOCALS

Gabriela Lena Frank: Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce; Las Cinco Lunas de Lorca; Cuatro Canciones Andinas; Shostakovich: Spanish Songs, Op. 100. Andrew Garland, baritone; Javier Abreu, tenor; Jeremy Reger, piano. Art Song Colorado. $15.99.                                                           

Michael Gilbertson: Born (2017); Returning (2015); Edie Hill: Spectral Spirits (2019). The Crossing conducted by Donald Nally. Navona. $14.99.

     There is something almost defiant in the creation of concerts, recitals and recordings that make no attempt whatsoever to reach out beyond a very limited audience. Participants clearly believe deeply in music performed and recorded as niche material, and the performances are often exemplary – again, almost defiantly so, as if everyone involved is making both an artistic and a societal statement about the worthiness of creative material that will never be heard by more than the smallest of audiences. It is listeners with a genuinely exploratory mindset who will deem material of this type fascinating – and worth tracking down. Take the songs of composer/pianist Gabriela Frank (born 1972) on a new release from Art Song Colorado. Like so much music by contemporary composers, Frank’s songs are intended to blend cultures, extend techniques, and exist on the borderline between genres – art songs, perhaps, but classical lieder, no. The singing is often declamation, sometimes Sprechstimme, only rarely recognizable as being in the classical art-song tradition. This is clearly by design: Frank uses both voice and piano to imitate Andean instruments and utilizes a combination of classical techniques with elements of Central American storytelling. Andrew Garland clearly revels in the mixture, changing his vocal raiment repeatedly and very quickly as the music demands, producing a kind of quicksilver fluctuation in technique again and again while delivering the words of the songs with considerable feeling. Pianist Jeremy Reger is less than a full partner – Frank’s interest is more in vocal elements than accompaniment – but Reger ably abets Garland’s approach and adds brief, bright bursts of color when the opportunity to do so arises. However, the experimentation of Frank becomes, after a while, overdone: the techniques call so much attention to themselves as techniques that an artificiality of delivery emerges and is somewhat at war with the emotional expressiveness of the texts. Because of this, the Cuatro Canciones Andinas are somewhat more effective than the Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce, simply by virtue of containing four songs rather than eight. Where things get really interesting, though, is in the remainder of the CD. Las Cinco Lunas de Lorca is a 10-minute duet in which Garland is joined by tenor Javier Abreu, and although the approach and structure do not differ significantly from those in the multi-song cycles, the exploration of the differing vocal ranges gives this setting a level of interest that sustains particularly well. Yet none of Frank’s material is as intriguing as Shostakovich’s Spanish Songs, which are among his less-known works but prove utterly fascinating here. The mixture of Russian language and rhythms with Spanish folk-song words and melodies is captivating, and the piano’s contribution to the overall presentation, which is greater than in Frank’s works, creates a sound world that is involving without requiring listeners to know the topics of the songs (it helps a great deal in the Frank works to know what the subject matter is). Both Frank and Shostakovich blend and contrast differing musical and topical material, and both do so with considerable skill; Shostakovich, however, draws less attention to what he is doing and how he is doing it, allowing listeners to absorb and be absorbed by his settings more readily and to better effect.

     The effect of the vocal ensemble The Crossing under Donald Nally is always impressive: the choral blending is excellent, the textual delivery clear, the expressiveness always involving. The specific material performed by The Crossing, however, is more of a mixed bag. A new Navona release includes two works by Michael Gilbertson (born 1987) and a 13-movement vocal suite by Edie Hill (born 1962). Gilbertson’s Born (text by Wisława Szymborska) ebbs and flows effectively but is less compellingly communicative than Returning, a two-part exploration of the biblical story of David and Jonathan (using words by Kai Hoffman-Krull) that transcends its topic with an ethereality and expressiveness of considerable sensitivity – and that plays to the considerable strength of The Crossing in delivering material not only full choir but also for smaller groups within the totality. Returning is, however, rather long – its two parts last 19 minutes – and as beautiful as the vocal delivery is, the piece eventually becomes somewhat wearing and wearying. Hill’s Spectral Spirits is even longer – 33 minutes – but benefits from its multiple-movement form and from Hill’s willingness to vary the length of individual elements by a considerable amount: the longest section lasts more than five minutes, the shortest just 15 seconds. Hill’s use of texts from multiple authors also helps the pacing and impact of Spectral Spirits: the words are by Holly J. Hughes, Henry David Thoreau, Gert Goebel, Christopher Cokinos, Lucien M. Turner, Paul A. Johnsgard, and Alexander Wilson. The work is about birds, specifically extinct birds, and has one of those standard “humans are awful” subtexts intended to produce guilt, or at least deep regret, for creatures that are no more. Thankfully, the musical presentation is better than its intentionality. It includes both eyewitness accounts of observing the birds and Hughes’ poetic treatment of the avian creatures. There is actually something poetic in some of the observational material, too, notably in Thoreau’s words on the passenger pigeon. The affectation of sections called “The Naming” – the shortest portions of Spectral Spirits, simply giving each bird’s Latin name and nicknames – adds little to a work that is otherwise both interesting and frequently moving, all the more so because The Crossing handles the vocal lines with such sensitivity. Spectral Spirits is not especially effective as advocacy, but as a display piece for a highly talented vocal ensemble with a strong interest in contemporary works, Hill’s piece is very much worth hearing – although its appeal will be to the very small audience that will likely be interested in first-rate choral performances of 21st-century vocal material conceived in the classical tradition.

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