Posts Tagged “PentaTone”


32 Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson

Lisa Delan, soprano
Fritz Steinegger, piano


Another winner featuring the charming presence of Lisa Delan! These 32 poems that Gordon Getty has set to music have the thematic and musical unity to constitute a real cycle. The subject is Death (the “White election” of the title), and the poems look at the subject subjectively from every angle. Getty organizes them in four Groups: 1, The Pensive Spring; 2, So We Must Meet Apart; 3, Almost Peace; and 4, My Feet Slip Nearer. A noticeable progression occurs as the poet delves ever deeper into the mysteries of life and death, which are not the diametric opposites we commonly imagine.

I will leave aside the identity of the “dim companion” in the poems that seem to point to a definite love interest in the life of the semi-reclusive Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who went to her grave a life-long spinster. Gordon Getty summarizes the case very succinctly in his program notes, and others have written at book length on the subject. Since death for Ms. Dickinson meant the spiritual reunion with those we have loved, it opened the portals to a new life, and was not at all life’s antithesis. The symbolism of white raiment, in which she dressed the last twenty years or so of her life, applies to both to the shroud and a wedding dress. She equates them with a ferocious optimism in such verses as “No more her patient figure / At twilight soft to meet, / No more her timid bonnet / Upon the village street, // But crowns instead and courtiers / And in the midst so fair, / Whose but the shy, immortal face / Of whom we’re whispering here?” Or consider, “Sufficient troth that we shall rise, / Deposed, at length, the grave, / To that new marriage justified / Through Calvaries of love.” Many other examples could be cited.

As scholars have observed, Dickinson’s poetry seems to spring from origins in church music, especially in the shape of her discrete four-line stanzas, though the flow of the thought often carries over between those stanzas, and they are not as foursquare metrically as many church hymns often are. Getty conjectures that Dickinson, who had studied voice and piano, must have set many of her poems to music for her own satisfaction. These “odd, old tunes” (her description) were certainly not intended for publication, which would have been out of character for someone who never sought to publish her poetry during her lifetime. In setting them to music, Getty confides, “I have set them, in large part, just as Emily might have if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm something like that in her poems.”

As played by Fritz Steinegger, the perfect partner for Ms. Delan in this recital, the piano accompaniment is ideally suited to the sense of the lyrics. It seldom takes the form of a florid line, but usually occurs in the form of widely spaced chords or even single notes, either quietly stated or powerfully expressed, depending on the emotion of the poetic line. Occasionally it becomes more florid, as it does in a poem that celebrates the reunion of mother and son in death after many years, he a recent casualty in one of the Civil War’s terrible battles: “When I was small a woman died, / Today her only boy / Went up from the Potomac, / His face all victory. // To look at her how slowly / The seasons must have turned, / Till bullets clipped an angle / And he passed quickly round. ” The vigorously extended piano introduction before the first stanza suggests the rapid call of bugles; in this case, the martial music is both unusual and appropriate to the idea of death as a victory over the unnatural pain of separation, numbed though it may be with the passing years.

Other lyrics do not embrace death with such enthusiasm. There is skepticism about it in such lines as, “The going from a world we know / To one a wonder still / Is like the child’s adversity / Whose vista is a hill. / Behind the hill is sorcery / And everything unknown, / But will the secret compensate / For climbing it alone?” Other poems contrast the poet’s curiously disjunctive perceptions of the two states, life and death: “And sometimes odd within; / The person that I was / And this one do not feel the same. / Could it be madness, this?” And sometimes she is struck by the odd discrepancy of feeling and perception between the bereaved and the departed: “I cried at pity, not at pain, / I heard a woman say, / “Poor child,” and something in her voice / Convicted me of me. // She’s “sorry I an dead” again, / Just when the grave and I / Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep, / Our only lullaby.”

OF course, even a first acquaintance with Dickinson’s poetry gives you the impression that it is at the same time simple in form and very sophisticated, both in her daring use of approximate and vowel rhymes and in the way a simple declaration or a striking images can resonate with meanings far beyond the stave’s end. You can’t just set them to music and sing them without interpreting fine nuances of significance. To that purpose, Getty’s song accompaniments often continue beyond the last stanza, extending and amplifying the mood and purpose of he poem. And Delan’s vocal artistry is well adapted to expressing the shifting, swiftly surging emotion in such run-on lines as “The bell within the steeple wild / The flying tiding told: / How much can come, / And much can go, / And yet abide the world!” As a song interpreter she may well be unequalled.

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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”?

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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

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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