Charlene Jones Marchant Gives First Recital in Tidewater

      On December 12, 2004 at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church in Hampton, we heard a recital titled The Beauty of the English Language in Art Song with music of African-American and British composers by lyric soprano Charlene Marchant and pianist Leslie Neal Douglas. Literally, Ms. Marchant collected together many of her favorite songs and put them all on one recital program. For this listener it was a feast!

      The program opened with four songs by Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), who was himself a baritone soloist and the first African-American composer of art songs. The elegant, regal bearing of Ms. Marchant was appropriate to showcase these songs, rarely performed because of their demanding vocal range and musical complexity. I hear his footsteps, music sweet is a love song as is Among the Fuchsias (from Five Songs of Lawrence Hope). The poet was Adela Florence Cory Nickelson of Gloucestershire, England, who wrote this poetry of passionate longing under a man's name, I suspect, because it would have been unseemly for a woman to have these thoughts, much less express them. The other Hope selection, Till I Wake, is about love that lasts into the resurrection.

      The program notes for each song gave information to enrich the experience. Lovely Dark and Lonely One by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) has a joyful energy in the face of deprivation and limits on freedom during racial segregation. "Face the wall with the dark closed gate, beat with tireless hands, bear your bosom to the golden sun and wait."

      The ironic nature of A Charm (from A Charm of Lullabies) by Benjamin Britten with the jaunty gallop of the piano and a text of threats that would lead to nightmares rather than peaceful sleep, made sense in this rendition.

      Ms. Marchant lived abroad for many years in Nairobi, Kenya, New Delhi, India and for seven years in London. While there she sang for Sir Peter Pears at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies where she was a student. The next four Britten songs were written for Pears: Fish in the unruffled lakes with poetry by W.H. Auden, Since she whom I loved from The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and finally two selections from Winter Words. We heard the complete cycle in Williamsburg soon after and will explore this intriguing music in detail below. The little old table and Before life and after were superbly presented with clarity of word and emotional content.

      After intermission there was a set of songs by British composers of the first half of the twentieth century: Cecil Armstrong Gibbs' (1889-1960) The Fields are Full, Herbert Howells' (1892-1983) Girl's Song, Roger Quilter's (1877-1953) Fair House of Joy and a Shakespeare setting of Take, o take those lips away by Peter Warlock (1894-1930). There are many excellent British songs that should be known and sung as well as they were here.

      The last set, also of African-American art song, included Adolphus Hailstork's Tell Me Trees: What are You Whispering, the text by novelist Wilson Harris, an Englishman born in Guyana. This emotionally evocative song has the poet standing under a tree contemplating the cycle of life - man knowing that in the end he will lie buried under the tree, covered by the ancient tree's fallen leaves.

      The set opened with three songs by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (1932-2004) who died last year of cancer. He was an important figure in America's music and Artistic Director of the Performance Program at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago. His songs, The Faithless Shepherdess, Unique and Melancholy, are about love. The intellectually challenging texts are by British poets and are complex word constructions making great demands on the singer's memory. It was an impressive tour de force to bring these songs off so well. We were especially pleased to hear them live for the first time. They are available in the Patterson anthologies and accompanying recordings.

      Betty Jackson King's (1928-1994) Climbing High Mountains and Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) popular He's Got the Whole World in His Hands were the final songs. As the sweetness of the voice and the grandeur of the piano tones died away, I realized what an incredible gift Charlene Marchant and Leslie Neal Douglas had offered to their audience. This was Ms. Marchant's first recital in Tidewater and I look forward to many more.

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