Unless one is searching for it, finding a concert that primarily features 20th Century American music is a bit difficult — especially with chamber music. The majority of concerts presented rest in the safer area of the Common Practice Era, which roughly corresponds to the years between 1750 and 1900. If a work appears on a program, it's often a single entry, flanked by two more common offerings. So, it is exceptionally refreshing when a recital comes that offers to delve into the canon of American music in the 20th Century.
To be fair, this isn't totally the fault of the presenting organizations; the reality is that Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky currently sell better than Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Howard Hanson and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich. Even though the Dallas/Fort Worth area has a few ensembles that have their primary investment in "new" music and prominently feature American composers, in the sampling available, one still has to search long and hard to find these gems.
For their most recent entry in the 2011-'12 season presented by the Cliburn Concerts at the Modern, artistic director Shields-Collins Bray (who also performed on the piano) collaborated with soprano Angela Turner Wilson to present a vocal recital of 20th Century American works that spanned the gamut from art song to Broadway ballad; featuring works by Rorem, Golijov, Corigliano, Scheer, Larsen and Guettel.
Wilson has an amazing voice with a clear dark tone, a solid vibrato, and diction that made the text instantly recognizable and clear. She was at her best in the four songs from Corigliano's Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. It was unusual to hear such well known texts outside of their original setting, but Wilson worked her fireworks in navigating the treacherous terrain (the irony being that her diction was the polar opposite of Dylan's, who is difficult to understand on a good day). Wilson was equally at home with the intensely lyrical Lúa Descolorida, a work by Osvaldo Golijov.
After the unusual "intermission" (more on that below), Wilson and Bray retook the stage for a lighter approach, and began with two works by Gene Scheer: Lean Away and American Anthem. While these two were the simplest works presented musically, they were also some of the most charming songs sung; Scheer has a Copland-esque quality in his music that reminds of the Old American Songs cycle set by the latter in the early 20th century. After three songs by Libby Larsen, the concert was concluded by three songs by American Broadway composer Adam Guettel, including the title song from The Light in Piazza.
The interaction between Wilson and Bray was charming without becoming pandering and babbling—an occurrence that seems to occur far too often when performers trend toward a more informal air. Bray was magnificent in his own right, accompanying the songs with a sensitive touch; at one point, he showed off his whistling skills when duplicating a violin obbligato line over the piano part in one of the songs.
The only confusing moment of the concert came after the first half of the set, when pianist Jose Feghali took the stage to perform Chopin's Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 31. Feghali was originally intended to give the recital, focusing on music and technology, but the program was changed for unknown reasons (which is the prerogative of the performing organization – and something I have no problem with). Feghali (the 1985 Van Cliburn Gold Medalist) was amazing to hear and watch within the context of the Chopin - which can, with lack of care, come off as bombastic. His technique was superb and his sound filled the hall without overpowering or over-emoting; the musicality was extraordinary. However, the Chopin seemed out of place within the theme of the afternoon. While expertly and musically performed, it ended up upsetting the flow of the concert. Without becoming quagmired in the hypothetical, were there no American works that could have been substituted – fitting with the theme of the concert?
The concert presented by the Cliburn Foundation is a golden example of how to program music of 20th Century Americans: strong performers with a mastery of their craft, while showing a wide range of the repertoire—a sampler that can show the breadth of the work, and still strive for an overarching coherence.