Fort Worth — We appear to have reached a tipping point in the resurgence of the song recital. The Dallas Opera has presented two recently: one was the first concert in a series, generously underwritten by Sarah Titus. Voces Intimae, a Dallas based group that presents art song concerts, recently revived itself and is going strong.
Texas Christian University School of Music added to this newly energetic category of a song recital with an entire festival and added a most welcome trump card by featuring the music of a living American composer. The Festival of American Song opened Saturday night and had another concert Sunday afternoon, both at PepsiCo Hall on the TCU campus. This review is of the Saturday show.
A collection of excellent singers, from TCU students to established veterans, was assembled by Shields-Collins Bray: Colleen Mallette, Virginia Dupuy, Amy Pummill Stewart, Alison Hodgson Whitehurst, Corrie Donovan Gandy, Jenna Meador, Christian Bester, Anthony Fortino and Angela Turner Wilson. Bray was at the piano for the entire program.
Bray, the principal keyboardist for Fort Worth Symphony, is a strong advocate for living composers with a deep interest in art songs. His Meet the Composer series is presented at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth under the auspices of the Cliburn Organization. This series brings the most distinguished composers of our era to Fort Worth for an informal discussion and performance of their works.
What is wonderful about Bray’s Meet the Composer series is what is missing in the Festival of American Song. Critics are always complaining about inadequate programs and word sheets in tiny type that we must negotiate in an overly dark hall. This printed program gets the award for the worst. It listed the songs and the singers and nothing else. A separate sheet gave brief bios of the singers but we were bereft of any information about the songs, neither the words nor any background about their composition—not even the year they were written. To make matters worse, Gordon was in attendance, but silent, as was the usually charming and informative Bray.
The singers marched out, one after the other without pause, and gave killer performances of their assigned songs. The format was like singer auditions. Except that even in that situation the singers introduce themselves and what they are going to sing. Not so here. There wasn’t an intermission and it was all over in a short 70 minutes.
Minimally, the program should have given us a few sentences about the songs. It was a great disappointment that Gordon didn’t give each song a brief introduction. His songs all have a fascinating story about its inspiration, creation and performances.
Musically, the program was an unqualified success. Gordon’s background in musical theater flavored most of the songs and thus requires a dramatic performance and all of the singers compiled. Most songs are mini-operas, especially in Gordon’s theatrical hands. We had a series of engaging performances from the opening youthful exuberance of Fortino’s reading of “Heaven” to Dupuy’s touching rendition of “Will There Really Be a Morning?”
To get a feeling of what we missed, I asked Gordon to send some comments about a song of his choice. While it might be unseemly to use Gordon’s generous reply to criticize the program, here is what was missing:
On “We Will Always Walk Together” from Dream True (1999)
“In July of 1996, Jeffrey Michael Grossi, my partner at that time, entered the hospital for what would be the last intermittently harrowing and inspiring weeks of his life. To comfort him, I wrote the lyric of this song, we would read it together and talk about it in the hospital room, though I couldn't write the music until after he died. He was obsessed with buying me a fax machine at that time. I asked why. He said, ‘You are going to need one.’ The day I finished the first draft of this song (it went through several) Tina Landau happened to call me in the late afternoon. I told her what I was working on and she asked me to sing it for her. The fax machine started making all sorts of squeaks and noises, which it has never made before or since, and a blank fax came through. It is technically impossible to fax when you are on the phone so I consider it a miracle. Later that year, on Jeffrey's birthday, I created a large memorial service/concert in his honor at Symphony Space with many singer, musicians and actors. I called the concert ‘Jeffrey's Birthday.’ At the end, I came out and sang this song. Tina Landau was at the concert and asked me to join her at Duke University to create a new musical based on that song...and we created Dream True. ‘We Will Always Walk Together’ is the last song in that show.”
Now that’s the kind of thing that, if it had been provided in the program or at the event, would have made the first concert in the Festival of American Song something really special.
» Look for a review of the Sunday afternoon performance coming on TheaterJones.
» Here is a video of Aundi Moore singing "Hallie Ann" from Gordon's song cycle Rappahannock County: