Posts Tagged “Vocal”


Amy Burton, soprano
Patrick Mason, baritone
John Musto, piano

Bridge Records

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.”

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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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Song of America II
Thomas Hampson (baritone)
Craig Rutenberg (piano), Wolfram Rieger (piano)


Tom Hampson is a fellow who isn’t easily deterred. Not content to wait upon the vagaries of major record labels and their A&R managers, he started his own Hampsong Foundation to promote intercultural understanding through song, specifically through the preservation of our own rich (and somewhat neglected) heritage of American songs. “Wondrous Free” is Part 2 of a series begun last year with “Song of America,” both of which are available through his own website at If anything, this collection is even richer than its predecessor.

The program begins with the classic simplicity of he title song, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” by Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), said to be America’s earliest composer of note, and continues up to the present. With his honest, clear baritone possessed of an impressively wide range, especially in the upper register, Hampson does a splendid job shaping the contours of the familiar folksong “Shenandoah” (arr. Stephen White, b.1943); instead of drawing out the long vowels in the word “Missouri,” he foreshortens it at the end, giving the listener the un-familiar heart-stopping emotion of witnessing something that has disappeared forever. Only Hampson could take a really sentimental song like Stephen Collins Foster’s “Nelly was a Lady” or Charles Ives’ version of “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and not make it drip with cheap sentimentality. Try singing the lyrics “Seldom from her eyelids / were the teardrops banished” or “Ring the bell for lovely Nell / my dark Virginny bride” without waxing schmaltzy, and you’ll see what I mean!

Some of the finest specimens of genuine art song on this album are three settings by John Duke of poems by Edward Arlington Robinson, “Richard Cory,” “Luke Havergal,” and “Miniver Cheevy.” These are rare instances in which great poetry meets with musical arrangements that do it justice. “Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal / where the vines cling crimson on the wall / and in the twilight wait for what will come. / The leaves will whisper there of her, and some / like flying words will strike you as they fall; / But go, and if you listen she will call.” Surely those lines are the perfect metaphor for death and the pain of separation. Hampson handles them with the dignity and the unadorned emphasis they deserve.

Death, as a matter of fact, is a common denominator of many of these songs (There’s nothing like a wake to bring out the best in American poets). William Grant Still’s “Grief,” to a text by LeRoy V. Brant is in this tradition: “Weeping angel with pinions trailing, / the white dove, promise, stands!” So are Ives’ setting of John McCrae’s famous lyric “In Flander’s Fields,” Edward MacDowell’s “The Sea,” with its premonition of the seafaring lover’s death, and Foster’s “Hard Times,” with lyrics particularly meaningful for contemporary listeners: “Many days you have lingered around my cabin door, / O! Hard times, hard times, come again no more.” Paul Bowles’ Blue Mountain Ballads (1946) are distinguished settings of four lyrics, some poignant, some saucy, all pithy, by Tennessee Williams. “Cabin” just may be my favorite: “Now the cabin falls / to the winter wind / and the walls cave in / where they kissed and sinned. // And the long white rain / sweeps clean the room / Like a white-haired witch / with a long straw broom1″

Sidney Homer’s 1926 setting of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” captures all the spirit of its high-spirited original: “Booth led boldly with his big bass drum / (Are you washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” The tub-thumping piano accompaniment to the rousing vocal line would have been to Lindsay’s delight: the last thing he wanted was for his poetry to be read silently in the solitude of one’s den or study. It was to be recited, and with fervor. Tom Hampson’s stirring rendition of this song makes the listener want to rise up and enlist as a Salvationist! And the sheer vocal gymnastics Hampson employs in his rendition of the first part of Ives’ “Memories,” with its conveying of the breathless emotions of two young people “sitting in the opera house, the opera house, the opera house / A-waiting for the curtain to arise” is something I wouldn’t dare try at home, even in the shower!

One of the most memorable moments in the recital is Hampson’s pure, dignified version of “Sing God a Simple Song (Lauda, Laude)” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971). That, and the songs “God Be in My Heart” (Elinor Remick Warren, to an anonymous 16th Century lyric) and “A Time for Farewell” (Jay Ungar/Cleo Laine) with its gently lilting rhythm, are likely to leave the listener in a mood of love and generosity toward all of mankind. (In my case, the feeling did not extend as far as the Republican Party. Even the magic of great music has its limits.)

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