Art Song of Williamsburg's Preview Concert

      Branch Fields, bass and Ruth Easterling Winters, pianist were presented in a recital September 29, 2002 at the Williamsburg Regional Library Theatre. The 2002-2003 season entitled The Lively Circle includes three recitals and this preview. The recital opened with a Beethoven song In questa tomba oscura (In this dark tomb) and Schubert's Gruppe aus dem tartarus, a vision of hell from Greek mythology. The voice, rich and melodious, the pianist, superb, assured the listeners that we were in for a rare treat.

      In her introduction Genevieve McGiffert, president and founder of Art Song of Williamsburg, had requested that there be no applause for the third selection Mache dich from Bach's St. Matthew Passion. With the text "Make thee clean, my heart from sin; I would my Lord inter," Branch Fields' intimate, gentle sound drew you into the spirit of this sacred music, thus demonstrating one facet of his rich repertoire. Another facet was shown in his selection of opera arias. The first, Gremin's aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, allowed Mr. Fields to sing low Russian notes of rich beauty in the basso profundo range. He performed this role at the Santa Fe Opera this summer.

      Rossini's comedic show-stopper aria La calunnia (Slander) from The Barber of Seville received great applause, which elicited a bow and a shy happy smile from this very handsome young vocalist. The sad, nostalgic aria For Every Love from Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa was sung beautifully with spare and elegant gestures creating the character on stage. Mr. Fields studied with Giorgio Tozzi at the University of Indiana who had created this role for the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 when it premiered there.

      Returning to art song he sang Richard Cumming's (b.1928) Grave Hour on a text by Ranier Maria Rilke from a ten-song cycle We Happy Few. The text is deep and the music does not resolve as most songs do, but holds the listener. There is some sense of closure with the repetition of the final line of the poem.

      Some of us might argue that the last four songs of the program are also art song. Drawn from Broadway musicals, these songs done by a soloist with piano accompaniment become quite different than when you hear them as part of a musical play: Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine from South Pacific by Richard Rogers. Here again is a connection with Mr. Fields teacher Giorgio Tozzi, who despite the name is an American from Chicago and who sang these songs on the South Pacific movie soundtrack. Rossano Brazzi is the actor who played the role and could not even manage the six notes hummed as he looks over the water, so Tozzi was called back to Hollywood for a second time to record them.

      From Camelot by Frederick Lowe he chose two songs: C'est Moi and If Ever I Should Leave You. From a deep bass rumble there emerges crystal clear diction and perhaps the most beautiful rendition of If Ever... that this reviewer has ever heard.

      The first encore was Wolseley Charles' The Green Eyed Dragon, a very dramatic song with a fairy tale text and tour-de-force piano accompaniment played to perfection by Ruth Winters, as she had done throughout this recital. As Branch took his bow he was joined on stage by his not quite two year old son Noel, who protested when his mother took him so his father could sing the second encore Deep River. The line "the promised land where all is peace" lingered as we left to mingle at the lovely reception to see friends and meet Branch, a Williamsburg native, who held his son throughout.

      This free concert was a gift to the community by Don and Linda Baker. The first performance of the regular season of Art Song of Williamsburg on November 15 will feature mezzo-soprano Martha Slay and pianist Charles Staples performing works by Gluck, Brahms, Poulenc, Britten, and Kurt Weill. Branch Fields and Ruth Winters will return in January for a regular season recital.

Martha Slay Sings in Williamsburg

      Love's Gallantries: Cradle to Cabaret was the title of the Art Song of Williamsburg recital on November 15, 2002 at the Williamsburg Regional Library Theatre. Martha Slay, mezzo-soprano and Charles Staples, pianist, presented a program of songs which opened with a recitative aria from Luigi Carlo Cherubini's (1760-1842) opera Medea. The song requires a mezzo-soprano voice that extends toward the contralto range. Ms. Slay created some very deep tones and a great deal of intense, passionate sound, with rapidly soaring passages.

      ASW president and founder Genevieve McGiffert, in her introduction, characterized the songs of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) as the music being dominant over the poetry. It seems that from age fourteen Brahms was a pianist in "restaurants" some of which by his own account were "more like brothels." Why wouldn't a pianist favor his instrument in his songs? These five songs are about love - Loves's Gallantries.

      In the Francis Poulenc cycle Banalitiés there are five songs; Hôtel and Voyage à Paris are the best known of the group. Voyage is a waltz and Hôtel is a Cabaret-like song all about smoking with its sensously scintillating line and the singers smoky sound.

      A Charm of Lullabies by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is new to this listener. This cycle of five songs stretches the definition of lullaby. It was written for mezzo-soprano and the harsh beauty in the singer's voice worked well in A Charm, with its grotesque text, but was less effective in A Cradle Song, The Nurse's Song and Sephestia's Lullaby. Our favorite song of the set was The Highland Balou in which the singer found a definite sweetness of tone.

      The four of us liked the Kurt Weill songs the most. The singer has a natural affinity for Cabaret songs. Surabaya Johnny, September Song, I Wait for a Ship, and My Ship were all very effectively rendered. In September Song she sings "For the days dwindle down to a precious few...These precious days I'll spend with you" as a loving lullaby. Charles Staples on the piano was a worthy partner throughout.

      There was an encore and a lovely reception with champagne punch and a friendly gathering of the art song tribe.

      Art Song of Williamsburg consistently challenges the listener to hear new art songs and this program added rarely performed works by Britten and Poulenc. In our CD collection the Medea excerpt by Marilyn Horne is on Erato ECD 88085. Mariam Anderson and Thomas Quastoff have recorded some of these Brahms songs. The complete Poulenc cycle can be found. The two popular songs reviewed above are on recent CDs by Sylvia McNair, Rêveries, and Frederica von Stade, Voyage à Paris. Britten's A Charm of Lullabies was released in 1981 but is no longer available. The Weill songs can be found, but we know of no single recording of these selections. Try to listen to any CD of his songs before you buy since interpretations vary widely and not all are pleasing to my ears.

Branch Fields Sings to a Sold-Out House

      On Friday January 31 Art Song of Williamsburg presented their second program of the season Art Song and Its Dramatic Relatives. Branch Fields, bass and Ruth Easterling Winters at the piano gave us a wonderful evening of song. We heard Branch Fields and met him at the Preview Concert last fall and were impressed by his vocal and dramatic gifts. This more extensive program showcased the depth and richness of his voice and his ability to create characters with gesture and voice.

      The program opened with songs by the Baroque composers Antonio Caldara, George Frederick Handel and Benedetto Marcello. Music from this period is in the instrumental singing style, more of a duet between singer and pianist. Still, this was passionate, lovely music.

      The Schubert songs that followed featured vocalist and pianist by turn. The intensity of Schubert's music in Der Wander seems to mirror the unhappy state of mind of the speaker as reflected by nature. It culminates with some very lovely, low, rich bass notes. Before Mr. Fields began Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden) you could see tension in the fingers of his right hand, which relaxed as he began to sing. What intensity of expression! The third selection, Gruppe aus den Tartarus (From Greek mythology, Tartarus is a place suggestive of hell) continues the use of nature as symbol for human agony and pain.

      Three songs from Richard Cumming's (b. 1928) cycle of ten songs, We Happy Few, were next on the program. Grave Hour is a song of somber mood which left me with an ambivalent feeling at the final words "Who now dies anywhere in the world, without cause dies in the world, looks at me." A Sight in Camp with text by Walt Whitman tells of his Civil War experience of lifting blankets to see the faces of three men fallen in battle; the last looks like Christ killed once again. Fields bends slightly and with a subtle gesture seems to lift the blanket from each face. Powerful!

      The third selection, The Feast of Crispian, is on a text by Shakespeare from Henry V. In this stirring speech King Henry inspires his men to victory. The cycle's title is taken from the line "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers ..." The text is prominent and clearly sung.

      Richard Cumming was born in 1928 in Shanghai, China to American parents and now lives in Rhode Island. His nickname is Didi which means "little brother" in Chinese. He has written over seventy tonal songs. The cycle was recorded by Donald Graham with Cumming at the piano. Ned Rorem wrote the liner notes for the LP. They are available in his book of essays on music, Settling the Score. He discusses each song in the cycle and puts Cumming's musical accomplishments in perspective (pp.67-72). Fortunately this recording is available again on a CRI compact disk (CRI 766). The CD also features his piano music with John Browning at the piano and two pieces with narration by F. Murray Abraham. My copy is on order.

      Since this newsletter features art song, I will briefly say that the arias from Mozart's Magic Flute and Marriage of Figaro and Rossini's Barber of Seville left us wishing that we could see Branch Fields in a stage production of these operas.

      The next selections were from Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah. Before the pianist struck the first note we watched the singer's face change as he got into the character Olin Blitch, a revivalist preacher and a very flawed man, to sing I'm a Lonely Man, Susannah and Hear me, O Lord. We have long hoped that Virginia Opera will do this opera, and here we have our leading man.

      The golden lyricism of his bass voice came to the fore in the Broadway selections Try to Remember (The Fantasticks), Where is the Life that Late I Led (Kiss Me Kate), Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific) and C'est Moi! (Camelot).

      The recital concluded with The Green-Eyed Dragon by Wesley Charles. Branch Fields is a young man with the promise of a long and illustrious career ahead. We are all fortunate to see and hear him in such a lovely intimate setting and with a full house. Genevieve McGiffert's illuminating introductory talk, the board in evening wear making sure everything flowed smoothly, and the champagne reception filled with much friendly conversation, all added up to a perfect evening.



The Belle of Amherst Revisited

Reviewed by Karen Scott

      The star personality of Art Song of Williamsburg's recent recital was not a singer or actress or pianist but Emily Dickinson. The essence of her thought, style and themes was stunningly presented in a recital featuring soprano Gigi Paddock and actress Elizabeth Wiley on February 13, 2003. The format of the recital was to have poems read by Ms. Wiley and interspersed by songs sung by Ms. Paddock. Sometimes the poem was represented in both the sung and spoken version. Genevieve McGiffert introduced each section with background information, clarifying some of the more obscure poems. Ruth Easterling Winters accompanied Ms. Paddock with sensitivity and skill.

      Ms. Wiley's subtle and insightful recitations added greatly to our understanding of each theme and also made the singing easily understood. Emily Dickinson's poetry is not easily accessible in a private, personal reading but in this setting the subtleties in her poetry were immediately grasped and her personality and ideas came to life.

      The Nature section began with Nature, the gentlest Mother, both poem and song. Aaron Copland's version is perhaps the most famous Emily Dickinson song. Ms. Paddock's gentle interpretation and excellent technique began the program with warmth. There followed poems and songs about the weather and flowers. This section ended with the charming Bee, I'm expecting you, a letter from a fly to a bee.

      The next section, Life, touched on some of Emily's rather unusual views and sensitivity. Her mental breakdown in her later life was the most likely subject of One need not be a chamber to be haunted. The Love section contrasted two completely different settings of Heart we will forget him! by Aaron Copland and John Duke. The singer in the Duke setting is obviously angry but overjoyed to be rid of her baggage but the Copland singer is struggling to put him out of her heart. It was very interesting to hear such completely different interpretations of the same poem.

      In the last section Time and Eternity, Ms.Wiley recited one of Emily's most popular poem's There's a certain slant of light. The program ended with Why do they shut me out of heaven?, a comment on Ms. Dickinson's inability to submit to the Puritan ethic prominent in New England in her time. She could never "die to the world," she enjoyed her secluded but very full life too much.

      Reviewer Karen Scott, a local art song recitalist, teaches voice at Christopher Newport University and at the Academy of Music in Norfolk. Ms. Scott will give her own recital of Emily Dickinson poetry set to music on May 12, 2003 in Norfolk at Royster Memorial Presbyterian Church at 8:00 pm.


The World of Heinrich Heine
A Sampler from the Golden Age of German Lied

      After the encores were finished and the audience had settled, the tenor Steven Tharp and pianist Will Crutchfield returned to the stage at Art Song of Williamsburg's last recital of the season March 7, 2003.

      "Nervousness prevents me from speaking before I sing" Mr. Tharp explained. In their conversation we learned that these two artists have worked together for thirteen years as co-accompanists. There is a chamber music aspect especially in these songs, the part written for each performer interacts with the part written for the other. This is duo-music making requiring a balanced sensitivity each to the other. If the singer holds a note longer than written the pianist ideally would respond by making the musical line seamless for the listener. There is a flexibility based on communication between the two. Steven Tharp even went so far as to say that sometimes the singer accompanies the pianist. These fine performers previously gave this recital at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      Mr. Tharp continues "I love all songs, they have a mesmerizing power over me." Composers react differently to the same text. There are hidden meanings in Heine's poems that free the composer to go in his own direction and come out with the expression of his own voice.

      Our singer with his apple-cheeked boyish looks is an accomplished performer of great sensitivity and intelligence. Joined by master pianist Will Crutchfield, they created for us an exploration of the height of joy, depths of sorrow and every emotional state in between in this extensive program of German lieder.

      Steven Tharp's career is evenly divided between concert, opera and recital. In 2001 he appeared with Will Crutchfield in Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin also with ASW. In 1984 he sang with the Virginia Opera in The Marriage of Figaro and earlier still in The Girl of the Golden West.

      Mr. Crutchfield, who recently conducted Giulio Cesare for the Washington Opera will return to Tidewater in the fall to accompany his father the tenor Robert Crutchfield in recital on September 28 at 4 pm at First United Methodist Church in Newport News. In the meantime listen for him on WHRO FM 90.3, where he is often an opera quiz panelist on the Saturday Met Opera broadcast. He is also a writer and scholar, having written for the New York Times, The New Yorker and The Grove Dictionary.

      The recital opened with Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) with a beautiful flowing piano line. It is a love song - a blissful dream of flowers, moonlight, gazelles and palm trees. Two songs by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) came next. Though underrated as a song composer, he wrote well for singers. He developed unpretentious romances into little dramatic scenes which were popular in drawing-rooms of his day. In Die Rose, die Lilie (The rose, the lily) the dove and the sun were once loved by our hero, but now are eclipsed by his love for "She herself - the source of all love." In Du schönes Fischermädchen we have a poem of a pretty fisher girl who trusts herself to the wild sea so why no trust herself to his wild heart?

      Two more songs by Mendelssohn followed. The dramatic but hymn-like Morgengruss (Morning Greetings) is a poem of a lover not sure that his love is reciprocated. Reiselied (Traveling Song): Riding into the forest on a windy, damp, cold night, the lover seeks the warmth of his lover's bed, but as a oak tree speaks "What do you seek, foolish rider, with your foolish dreams?" We feel his lost loneliness. The racing piano gives a sense of urgency as he rides ever onward.

      The first set closed with a song by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Belsatzar with text by Heine, recounts the Biblical story of Belshazzar, the king of Babylon's last night on earth. Jehovah's judgment is dramatically expressed. Eric Sams explains "... objective treatment [of the text] was not in Schumann's nature. His music expresses instead the drama, the changing moods of an imagined onlooker."

      The Heine poem about the lovely fisher girl was sung again, this time set by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). He titled it Das Fischermädchen. In January of 1828, at the last gathering of Schubert and his friends to celebrate poetry and song, now known as Schubertiads, he was introduced to Heine's poetry from Buch der Lieder. Schubert carried the book away with him and even though he was gravely ill he set six of the poems before his death in November.

      Am Meer is a very strange love song , Die Stadt a song of lost love depicting what feels like a horrible event. Der Doppelgänger continues this dire mood. The lover faces his ghostly double at the house of his former beloved. Ihr Bild with its intense piano ending in English is "her likeness" appearing in a dark dream of the lover with both of them crying. The story culminates in Der Atlas with its symphonic opening, Atlas staggers under the load of a world of sorrow. "Heart you wished for endless happiness and now you are wretched!" One could make the point that his selections of these Heine poems spoke to the anguish of his impending death. Whether or not this was a conscious, deliberate expression on his part we cannot know.

      After intermission there were songs by Franz and Brahms. Robert Franz ( 1815-1892) offers a respite from all this romantic intensity. "My lieder," he declared "are not meant to arouse but to create peace and tranquility." Aus meinen grossen Schmerzen. Roughly "from my great sorrow I make little songs." O lüge nicht! and Kommt feins Liebchen heut? are equally restful. Altogether he set six texts by Heine.

      Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was represented on this very complete program by Sommerabend (Summer evening), Mondenschein (Moonlight) and Meerfahrt (Sea journey).

      A most interesting pre-concert lecture was by Dr. Gary A. Smith of William and Mary, titled Heinrich Heine: The Heart of a Dove and the Beak of a Hawk. He focused on the poet rather than the composers. Unlike much of the poetry set to music which is remembered only as a song text, Heine is still one of the most widely read all German poets. The title for the lecture is that of a book by Fritz Raddatz who shows us both sides of Heine's personality. The voice of the dove provides the text for the songs we heard, but he could also be mocking, disdainful and very witty when on the attack. Dr. Smith's presentation, including the full text of his lecture but without the music can be found at http://www.wm.edu/CAS/modlang/gasmit/artsong/Heine/lecture.html

      The speaker's friend Joel Brumlik (d. 1999) had made his own translation of Heine with accuracy and a poetic quality, recreating in English both figuratively and rhythmically Heine's language. He provided the audience with his translation of Liederkreis set by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). He invited us to compare Brumlik's translations with the ones in our program book and decide for ourselves which ones we prefer. Mr. Tharp sang the entire nine song cycle as the last set of the program.

      Robert Schumann was in love with Clara Weick and wrote these songs "solely in thoughts of her" with passion inspired by new ideas, emotions and forms. His "Year of Song" had begun.

      There were altogether about thirty songs drawn from the Golden Age of German lied. I suspect that most of us in the audience will never again hear a single program of lied with this variety, depth and complexity. What an evening!

 

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