Amy Burton, soprano
Patrick Mason, baritone
John Musto, piano
This was my first acquaintance with American composer John Musto: not his opera Volpone, nor his Passacaglia for Large Orchestra, both of which have won him acclaim, but his songs. Perhaps they are his most typical creations, for they show an uncommon, unerring ability to meld sound and sense. Musto has the rare ability to find exactly the right musical setting for each poetic text and to fit it with the perfect accompaniment. In this program, he has two ideal song interpreters for collaborators. Patrick Mason’s deep baritone seems perfect for the songs in the first set of the program, “Viva, Sweet Love.” It is complimented perfectly by Amy Burton’s attractive and versatile soprano voice, which possesses the flexibility to encompass everything from Mozart heroines to Broadway to music written for the French diva Yvonne Printemps. Musto himself plays the piano accompaniments, which often have a life of their own, carrying on and deepening the mood of a song.
Musto’s songs are more complex than they might seem at first hearing. They can be deceptively sparse sounding, as they often are in the “Viva, Sweet Love,” set to poems by e. e. cummings and James Laughlin that are often deliberately cryptic in their syntax in order to force the reader to delve into the deeper levels of emotion and meaning that lie underneath, as it does in cummings’ “image of the sea stretching forth and being taken in and released again as a metaphor for “love, / the breaking / / of your / soul / upon / my lips” (as is the sea marvelous). Or take the same poet’s marveling at the ever-renewed enchantment of love by each new twosome who discover it: “such a sky and such a sun / I never knew and neither did you / and everybody never breathed / quite so many kinds of yes” (sweet spring). In these songs, Patrick Mason cultivates a spare, unadorned vocal quality that serves the needs of the poetry well.
In the six lyrics of the set Quiet Songs, Amy Burton applies a greater variety of vocal techniques to a more diverse collection of songs. In cummings’ “maggie and milly and molly and may” four little girls go down to the beach to play and each brings back a different impression, which is really a part of herself, from the experience, “for whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” Quiet Songs, to a text by Eugene O’Neill, explores different varieties of quiet and solitude: “Here / Sadness, too, / Is Quiet / Is the earth’s sadness / On autumn afternoons.” The musical setting here is quite different in mood and texture than it is for the denser setting Musto gives Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Christmas Carol, with its bitter lament for the lost meaning of the holiday: “How mute you lie within your vaulted grave. / The stone the angel rolled away with tears / is back upon your mouth these thousand years.”
The last part of the program has Mason and Burton alternating a program of eight other songs, including a moving duet in Old Gray Couple (text by Archibald MacLeish), in which New York Festival of Song co-founder Michael Barrett joins Musto for the duo-piano accompaniment. Here, the text and its interpretation give poignant meaning to the paradox that love, in old age, dwells on “absence, not presence: what the world would be / without your footstep in the world / “¦ love, like light, grows / dearer toward the dark.” Some of these poetic texts such as Mark Campbell’s Nude at the Piano and Dorothy Parker’s Résumé and Social Note are both pungent and pithy, and Musto finds the settings appropriate for them: “Guns aren’t lawful; / Nooses give; / Gas smells awful; / You might as well live.” Flamenco (text by C. K. Williams) has an appropriately Andalusian quality to its accompaniment, even as Mason and Musto (as composer) focus on the paradox that the Flamenco guitarist, who it turns out is a drug addict, doesn’t live above a whorehouse as he claims, and isn’t even Spanish, still “played like a fiend.” Penelope’s Song, to a poem by Didi Balle and sung here by Amy Burton, is perhaps the most the most intriguing poem of all in its repeated entreaty by the speaker “Don’t hurry home, love / Don’t hurry home / . . . I’m in love with beginnings. / Landing and leaving / Weaving and unweaving, / This nomad’s heart / Needs to start / Love’s journey again.”