Songs by American Composers
Lisa Delan, soprano
Kristin Pankonin, piano
Assisted by Susanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano; Matt Haimovitz, cello
This recital by the wonderful American soprano Lisa Delan created pleasant peril for me, and I don’t mind admitting it. Lord, but there’s so much diversity here! These seventeen songs by six composers – William Bolcom, Gordon Getty, Jake Heggie, David Garner, John Corigliano, and Luna Pearl Woolf – range from cabaret and blues to genuine art song and modern folk-inspired. The lyrics cover the whole poetic spectrum: poignant, piquant, witty, profound, wickedly satirical, sad, and sensuous, with even a bit of pathos here and there. It’s as if I’d been admiring the artistry of one of those jugglers who can balance a rubber ball, a basketball, a bowling ball, and a pineapple all at the same time, and was requested by the artist: “Here, won’t you please keep these going for a while so I can take a break?”
Nor were my brother wizards in the upper stratosphere any help at all. A diligent search of the “˜net failed to reveal any previous reviews from which I could crib. It could be I’m the first reviewer with the temerity to tackle this musical landmine in the shape of a compact disc. That’s a scary thought!
So, where to begin? Where, I ask you? Could it be Bolcom’s delightfully impudent Cabaret Songs to lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, Amor, Close the Curtain, Waitin’ and Toothbrush Time? Impossible in just a few words to describe the impish quality Delan imparts to the flirt who inspires just one response from everyone she encounters, from the ice cream man to an all-male jury: “Amor!” Or the light twist given a contemporary wail of morning-after alienation in “It’s toothbrush time, / ten a.m. again and toothbrush time. / Last night at half-past nine it seemed O.K. / But in the light of day not so fine at toothbrush time.” Gordon Getty’s settings of three of his own poems, ranging from the delicate tracery of Where is My Lady, (“In footfall and starfall again and again, / beauty and grace she is, beauty and grace / Hang in the air like chimes when she goes by”) to the rousing, stamping high spirits of Tune the Fiddle and the poignant sense of pristine beauty lost in The Ballad of Poor Peter, bring forth an impressive range of interpretive responses from Delan, in collaboration with the sensitive accompaniment of pianist Kristin Pankonin. “Upon a day, along a way, / I met a child. / She said, “˜Come find me if you can: / you lost me when the world began.’ / I asked her meaning but she ran / into the wild.”
Jake Heggie, like Getty a native San Franciscan, finds inspiration in the traditional, represented by his setting of Sir Philip Sydney’s Elizabethan lyric My True Love Hath My Heart and arrangements of three American folk songs, Barb’ry Allen, He’s Gone Away, and The Leather-winged Bat. The first three are moving and dignified in their expression of deep-running emotion, as befits tradition. The last is a purely delightful romp that gives Delan the chance to characterize the four avian voices in the poem with some shrewdly funny accents: “‘Hi,’ said the woodpecker sittin’ on a fence, / “˜Once I courted a handsome wench, / She got sassy and from me fled, / And ever since my head’s been red.'” Garner’s Annettes-Lieder are modern art song settings, sung in the original German, of three poems by the remarkable poetess Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1797-1848): Im Grasse (In the Meadow), Am Turm (On the Tower), and Der Weiher (The Weir), the last-named filled with the atmosphere of her beloved moorlands in Westphalia. What a remarkable figure Annette must have seemed to her contemporaries: her poems are vigorously romantic, stern, and completely unsentimental. They cry out for the spirit of wild adventure then enjoyed solely by men, and were not what her era expected of a woman, even an aristocrat. With the aid of Pankonin and Matt Haimovitz, whose cello lends eloquent support here, Ms. Delan reaches sublime heights in such verses as “When in my breast the dead come to life, / Each corpse wakens and stretches; / Lightly, so lightly drawing breath, / And the eyelids lightly flutter, / Loves past, times past, joys past. / All these treasures mingled in the rubble, / Brush against each other: timid sounds, / Like the tinkling of chimes in the wind.”
The “wickedly satirical” element I mentioned earlier is found in Corigliano’s Two Cabaret Songs, to poems by Mark Adamo. Dodecaphonia, for which Corigliano originally flirted with the title “They call Me Twelve-tone Rose,” evokes police suspect descriptions a la film noir. It’s spiced with choice lyrics like “She lured the likes of Bernstein, even / Copland to her camp, / that vaguely ethereal, always funereal, / post-Wagnerian vamp” and “she’ll lead you to inversion / and you’ll fall for ev’ry pitch, / “Cause she’ll never use the same pitch twice.” Originally premiered by the incomparable Joan Morris, Dodecaphonia sounds just as great when Lisa Delan does her own take on it. Marvelous Invention satirizes the tendency for even great music to descend to mere wallpaper when pressed into a handbag full of compact discs: “So play me Sondheim or Takemitsu when / it’s time to walk my Shih-Tzu.” Finally, Woolf’s Odas de Toto el Mundo (Odes for Everyone), for which Haimovitz again adds the dark color of his cello, captures the flavorful Latin dance rhythms, the insouciance, the melancholy, and the exotic metaphors of the poem by the great Chilean author Pablo Neruda. Delan, who commissioned this piece, revels in such exotic imagery as “I sell / jungle odes / that run on puma feet: / they must be handled with care, behind bars, / they come / from age-old forests, / they are hungry.” What better way to conclude so thoroughly enjoyable and provocative a recital than the poem’s final stanza: “See you soon / when all things / become song”?