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Phenomenon,” The Music of David Garner
Lisa Delan, soprano; Stephanie Friede, soprano
Suzanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano
Francisco Araiza, tenor; William Stone, baritone
Kristin Pankonin, piano
PentaTone

The title “Phenomenon” actually derives from “Phenomenal Woman,” a setting of seven songs on poems by Maya Angelou which is heard on this CD, and perhaps refers in general to the magic by which a lyric poem can acquire yet more vivid life when set to music, if the setting be right. It does not refer to San Francisco native David Garner (b.1954) personally, though from his portrait on the booklet cover, I’d say he looks like the sort of chap who wouldn’t mind claiming the distinction. When he is good, in these settings of poetry by Spanish, Japanese and American poets, he is admittedly very, very good.

First, let’s get the disappointment out of the way. I have difficulty understanding the English language when set to music as “art” song, but then, I’m a native speaker of the language. Even familiarity with the words of the three selections Garner has chosen from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (Fiddler Jones, Charles Webster, Lucinda Matlock) and having the booklet in hand, did not help me in following Garner’s correlation of words and music. Perhaps Masters’ spoken American idiom is too plainspoken and spare for a musical setting, in contrast to the flowering of his imagery. To his credit, the composer has taken pains to re-create a distinctive musical idiom for each of his early American portraits, sung by mezzo Suzanne Mentzer. In “Fiddler Jones,” we hear the rhythms of Bluegrass music, in “Lucinda Matlock” light-stepping, shifting metrical patterns, recalling her girlhood love of dancing.

Vií±etas Flamencas (Flamenco Vignettes) are settings of six poems by Francisco Garcia Lorca, a poet much influenced by Spanish folk culture and the Canto Jondo style of singing in particular. In his musical settings Garner does a splendid job of evoking the ethos of Flamenco, with its evocations of passionate singers, swirling skirts, and green glass mirrors in smoke-filled cafés reflecting strange, distorted images. Some of the most telling of these poems are tributes to deceased Canto Jondo artists “His cry was terrible. Old timers say that one’s hair would stand on end, and make the quicksilver split in the mirrors” (Portrait of Silverio Franconetti). Others express the bitterness of life and its final end: “Parrala maintains a conversation with Death. She calls Death but Death never comes. And she calls out again. The people are inhaling her sobs. And in the green mirrors, her long silk train sways back and forth” (Flamenco Cabaret). These poems are sung in the original Spanish by Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza, and benefit from his distinguished manner of interpreting passion and meaning in a song.

Next, we have a change of pace in the form of settings of two Japanese poets in English translation, alternating the voices and interpretive skills of William Stone and Stephanie Friede. There are two rather expansive personal lyrics by Nakajima, “For My Daughter” and “An Old Pond,” and five Haiku by Nozaki, poems in which the emotion is entirely sublimated to the strict demands of the form. The persona in the first Nakajima poem directly expresses his anxiety over his daughter’s impending marriage, rare for the Japanese. But even here the usual Japanese way is to let the images carry the emotion: delicate falling petals, moonlight, a lone firefly trailing its luminescent streak off into the dark woods. Garner never fails to find the right musical correlative for what he wishes to say. Sometimes, he does some intentionally impressionistic picture painting, of a snake “transforming himself as he swam across, into ring upon ring of water” (An Old Pond), for instance, or Nozaki’s image of a mountain spring flowing down in pure crystal waters (Five Haiku). Since the typical Japanese poem is open-ended (“a “˜one-way journey’ from one emotional place to another”), Garner wisely chooses to through-compose his settings, rather than recap the meaning and the emotion at the end. The results are very satisfying.

The seven poems by American poet Maya Angelou, collected under the title Phenomenal Woman, are at the opposite end of the poetic spectrum from the Japanese. They seethe and burst with emotion and resonate with the spoken Black idiom. Each poem is self-sustaining, rather than part of any notion of a “cycle,” and to re-create them musically, Garner employs a variety of popular music types: blues, jazz, rock “˜n roll, and music theatre are all present here (and superbly rendered by soprano Lisa Delan, I might add). The poems express Angelou’s faith in the indomitable human spirit, and in particular the strength of the female: “Men? / Yes, I’ll love them. / If they’ve got the style, / To make me smile, / I’ll love them. // Life? / “˜Course, I’ll live it. / Let me have breath, / Just to my death, / And I’ll live it.”

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