Dallas — There is something honest and commutative about a song recital that other concerts can’t approach. A composer’s take on a text, which is then handed off to a singer to bring it to life and an audience to be affected by it I one of the great transformations in the musical world. This is why Sarah Titus worked with the Dallas Opera to establish an art song series and it is the mission of a dedicated board of directors that brings us Voces Intimae.
Under the artistic direction of baritone Christian Bester, the art song group is pointed in a new and revitalized direction. The concert on Feb. 16 at Zion Lutheran Church in Dallas was a good example. The program, called "Texas Lekka: Roundup of Texas Composers," featured songs by Simon Sargon, Francis Osentowski, Robert Xavier Rodriguez, Joelle Wallach and Margaret Barrett.
All of these composers write in a relatively tonal language, but all sound fresh and new. Fortunately, we live in an era that does not have a strict compositional style. Those of us who lived through the mid-20th century when atonality, dodecaphonic structures, and a search for new sounds caused a shunning of non-conforming composers. The most regretful example of this is Lee Hoiby, although there are untold numbers of them out there, who labored ignored and unknown, or who gave up.
However, this was not unusual in musical history. In all eras, there was a prevailing “style” that only a few dared to buck, but always forward into regions that are more adventurous—never into regions perceived as backwards, no matter how freshly approached.
Fresh approaches were the order of the day. Each composer had his or her own take on the traditional.
Robert Xavier Rodriguez was represented by two works. The first was a cycle, six songs of e. e. cummings sung by soprano Erin Alcorn, a lyric soprano with a beautiful limpid quality. The cycle became more cummings-ish as it progressed. The first three songs all shared a rippling accompaniment pattern. The fourth deconstructed the harmony into alternating intervals that led to a lovely final resolution. The fifth song demonstrated some musical comedy influence. The fourth song was the standout as Rodriguez took great delight in the “he said/she said” back and forth during a sexual encounter.
His second offering of the afternoon came is the second half. Once again, Rodriguez set some ordinary texts in a witty manner. Entitled “Praline and Fudge,” the songs were exactly that—recipes for the two confections. These are very clever songs that revel in their Handelian mock-serioso manner. They were sung by Matthew Stump, a young bass (a real one) with a voice that took many of those in attendance, who were unfamiliar with his magnificent instrument and communicative skills, by surprise at the depth of his sound. This is a major voice, a true bass, a fine musician, natural stage abilities and an imposing physical presence. Any one or two of those qualifications would predict a major career, but all four is a combination that predicts stellar heights. It will be of great interest to follow his career.
A. E. Houseman is a poet that seems to inspire musicians. Many composers have set his poems and one that was part of the recent set, “With Rue My Heart is Laden,” has been set by dozens over the years. This set of six poems was set by Simon Sargon. His musical language favored simple accompaniments spiked with dissonance. Some of his straightforward and attractive music felt at odds with the texts and an occasional musical accent landed on the wrong syllable (pro-per-TY). Tenor Bo Wang has an excellent voice that is still in progress. At this point, he is still young, his vocal production is on the tight side but that is easily fixed and age will help. Part of this perception might have been caused by the range of the songs themselves, which sit too low for him.
Margaret Barrett set quite a task for herself in choosing to set Annie Dillard’s “I Am Trying to Get At Something Utterly Heartbroken.” This is a poem that is in conversational blank verse, or maybe it is prose laid out as a poem. Either way, it poses a problem when setting such a text to music. It is cast in three parts that Barrett set without a pause. She does a fine job overcoming the inherent problems of the text. She does this by sometimes setting it in a conversational manner, while other times, breaking it up into clusters of words. Laura Begley, a mezzo with a powerhouse of a voice, gave the songs a compelling performance.
Simon Sargon’s Take Five ended the program with the excellent Matthew Stump singing. Based on poems of Samuel Hoffrstein, this set was more successful than his earlier effort. These are poems of great wit and charm and the composer took full advantage of the clever lyrics. His music offered some parodies, such as a reference to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp minor. Another poem that muses on the fact that babies and some old men are hairless, ends with the famous musical quip “Shave and a hair cut: two bits.”
Joelle Wallach’s setting of “The Firefighter’s Prayer” brought a more traditional change of pace. This is a traditional text and most publications of it say that the author is Unknown. In fact, this famous, moving and heartfelt poem was written by a real firefighter, A.W. “Smokey” Linn, who died in 2004. As a newly appointed firefighter in Wichita in 1958, Linn worked a particularly dangerous fire that had tragic consequences. Three children, trapped by locked security bars, died before the helpless firefighter’s eyes. Wallach’s setting is appropriately reverential. Tenor Bo Wang fared somewhat better in this performance.
The takeaway, though, has to be Francis Osentowski’s Letters from a Poet in Italy. This cycle is based on poems by Jerry McElveen. The composer and poet were both on a tour of Italy and Ostentowski noticed that McElveen was jotting in a notebook. When the composer saw that he was writing poems, he asked permission to set some of them and this cycle is the happy result. Soprano Erin Alcorn was much more impressive here, partly because she was able to call on her musical comedy experience because of the composer’s incorporation of many different musical styles.
At this point, I must admit that I am quite familiar with this cycle. Ostentowski shared them with me some time ago and I even offered some extremely minor input while they were still in a formative period. Nevertheless, I found them to be just as clever and well constructed as I did, way back when.