Daniel Okulitch, baritone
The New American Art Song
Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Lowell Liebermann and Glen Roven, accompanied by the composers
The first solo record by Canadian baritone Daniel Okulitch is an impeccable portrait of his voice’s warm and earthy elegance. Through sets of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Glen Roven and Lowell Liebermann, Mr. Okulitch’s voice comes across as richly dark, sensitive and – above all – clear. The songs themselves are very good and lovely as well, but do not necessarily display a wide swath of the landscape of contemporary American song. With this fact stated, I want to stress that each cycle has beautiful, poignant moments and are scrupulously written…they are just cut from a similar cloth in terms of their musical materials. Because the composers actually accompany Mr. Okulitch on the recording, I was particularly attentive to the interplay between the piano and vocal parts. The role of the two musical characters varied greatly between and within each group of songs, providing – along with the transient moods of the texts – the listener with welcome volatility and contrast against the stylistic consistently of the works and Mr. Okulitch’s undeviatingly sterling performance.
Dominating the CD is Glen Roven’s from the Underground, a set of fifteen songs each with an isolated personality and texture, yet united by Mr. Roven’s mostly triadic and diatonic musical fabric. The piano imitates the vocal line in many of the songs, strengthening the reflection of, “[Mr. Roven’s] personal feelings about each poem”, which he describes is his goal when writing art songs. Repetitive rhythms in the piano accompaniments, combined with humorous texts gave some songs, like “This is Just to Say”, the flavor of musical theater music (an affect that reappears in other cycles on this disc). Though I enjoyed the whole set, I felt the song “Come to the Edge” was the most beautiful – perhaps perfectly constructed – thanks to the absolutely engrossing way the vocal line pairs with the piano. Mr. Okulitch’s part begins quietly, accompanied by timorous pandiatonic clusters in the piano, the two musical bodies simultaneous build momentum, energy and scope until the vocal line climaxes and the piano part spills into a valley of lush extended triads, marking the most important moment in the poem.
The musical hints at musical theater I noted in from the Underground are also apparent in the album’s first cycle – Ricky Ian Gordon’s Quiet Lives. To me, all songs are theatrical and narrative, so I am not surprised – in a contemporary music world typified by the fusion of popular and traditional motifs – that the clear phrasing and persistent rhythms of musical theater songs have bled into the already closely related genre of ‘art song’. Like all the composers on the album, Mr. Gordon has written some stunningly beautiful songs fueled by very interesting texts with the exact personality of each song remaining pretty variable. Contrastinglt to from the Underground, the piano is limited to a strictly accompanimental presence and does not often double or imitate the vocal line. Conveniently, the cycle’s extremes in mood appear adjacent to each other. “As Planned” features a sarcastic text discussing the unpredictable consequences of drinking too much vodka, with the air of mischief shared in the piano’s tongue-in-cheek, cabaret-style waltz. The following song, “Kid in the Park” is the cycle’s most reflective, with a piano part that hints, with the most extraordinary subtleness, to slow, R&B ballads (I could very well be imagining such a connection exists). The tempo and chordal accompaniment leave Mr. Okulitch plenty of room to draw the listener into the text’s account of the challenges facing urban youths.
The two remaining cycles both stood out to me with their more coherent character/mood (thanks, no doubt, to their relative brevity in comparison to the aforementioned works), and subtly cultivated drama. Lowell Liebermann’s Night Songs, probably the most traditional sounding of the disc, paints a delicate and convincing portrait of the introspection that so often accompanies the setting of the sun. This is particularly apparent in the set’s first two songs – “Good Night” and “She Tells Her Love Half Asleep” – whose repetitive accompaniments and melodies firmly establish a musical world haunted by the stillness of moonlight and stars. Jake Heggie’s Of Gods and Cats had, by far, the most memorable texts of the whole album. The first, “In the Beginning”, retells the biblical creation through the perspective of a cat engaging with quotidian experiences such as drinking milk and falling asleep in a paper bag. Closing out the pair is “Once upon a Universe”, which describes what God was like as a child, destroying his toys much to the chagrin of his mother. Of course, the text is not so engrossing on its own accord: Mr. Heggie sets it both impishly and austerely, with the piano part adding masterfully timed moments of levity to an otherwise reverent portrayal of poet Gavin Geoffrey Dillard’s comical musings.