Karen Hoy Studio Presents American Songs

As a follow-up to the very successful recital of Libby Larsen (b.1950) songs in conjunction with the John Duffy Composers Institute in 2010, Karen Hoy presented her professionally trained adult students in a program titled “Made in America” during the 2011 Duffy Institute. Though not officially part of the institute program, the recital was held in Chandler Hall on June 4, 2011 with Oksana Lutsyshyn as pianist. Songs performed were by Dominick Argento (b.1927), Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Amy Beach (1867-1944), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), John Dixon (b.1957), Adolphus Hailstork (b.1941) and Ned Rorem (b.1923), all American composers.

The program was opened by soprano Shelly Milam singing from Elizabethan Songs by Argento. The song Winter begins with a torrent of words tumbling out. The mood was exuberant and Ms. Milam sang with deep feeling. Dirge plumbed a very different feeling. Both songs are settings of text from Shakespeare plays. The poet of Diaphenia, a joyful ditty with a soaring vocal line, was John Constable (1562-1613). In Nuvoletta by Barber Ms. Milam sang a stream of consciousness text by James Joyce (1882-1941). The words create fleeting images as the singer flows into a lovely vocalise mid-song then wends her way into a repeated little cry. Ever so sweetly the child in the song, leaning over the bannister, jumps: “A light dress fluttered. She was gone.”

A poignant mood of striving in Hailstork Evensong played by violinist Jorge Aguirre and cellist Jacob Fowler, followed. The dialogue of instruments was always lyrical and sometimes supportive of each other as the cello extended and deepened the clear violin tones. Pizzicato passages created excitement.

Rita Addico-Cohen came out next wearing a red sheath gown and sang one of my favorite Rorem songs, Early in the Morning. The text by Robert Hillyer (1895-1961) captures a delicious moment in time. The singer is twenty, at an outdoor cafe in Paris on a summer morning and in love. This was followed by three songs for high voice by Rorem: Pippa's Song continues the theme of “all is right with the world” expressed as an explosive exclamation of spectacular high notes. In a Gondola is about about being in love and Song for a Girl urges her young suitor to capture her love while she is still innocent before she learns the game of love.

Ms. Cohen then sang the premier of local composer John S. Dixon's Clair de Lune (Moonlight) commissioned by her husband Andrew and arranged to let her voice soar at each of several vocalises. Both the setting and singing were lovely. Next she sang another local composer's song, Who is Sylvia? by Dolph Hailstork with text by Shakespeare. The piano prelude has a jazzy cabaret sound. The violin played by Jorge Aguirre enhances the cabaret mood and cellist Jacob Fowler joins in the wild but laid-back energy that wraps around the voice with all those lovely high notes. What luxury for the listeners!

After intermission it was Ms. Lutsyshyn's time to shine. She played Andrey Kasparov Cadenza for LvB (2010-2011), a new work she premiered this spring. Single repeated notes that gradually change with silences between create the essential musical fabric. Thrashed clusters of keys punctuate the ongoing flow of single notes only to give way to more lyrical playing and a brighter mood, with short runs of unusual note combinations and a boogie-woogie like tune. A return to single notes with silences between created a balanced overall structure.

Composer Kasparov joined his wife, Oksana Lutsyshyn at the piano in his Fantasy on Lutheran Chorales (2006). Using familiar tunes such as A Mighty Fortress, this meditative, introspective creation had a French impressionist feeling. Imagine being in a cool garden on a summer evening listening to Satie piano music in the distance when a modern voice breaks in, chiding God for creating Lutherans. It had a quiet ending. As applause continued Andrey gave Oksana a little kiss.

The talented, friendly soprano Denise Battle sang Not in Vain, an Emily Dickinson poem set by Hailstork. The idea of the song is that even small acts of kindness – helping a robin back into its nest – add up to a good life. Daffodils by Hailstork (text, William Wordsworth) sets the words as a rush of pleasure. Joy at discovering a field of golden daffodils overcomes the poets pensive mood.

Next The Browning Songs, Op. 44 by Amy Beach was offered by Ms. Addico-Cohen. The Year's at the Spring, Ah, Love But a Day! and I Send My Heart up to Thee are Beach's most beloved songs and embody American music at the turn of the nineteenth century. These songs were popular during her lifetime. She was one of the first American composers to be trained entirely in the USA. These happy, romantic songs were easy to understand.

Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Oberdorfer closed the recital with a Bernstein song, What a Movie! from his one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti (1952). It later became the second act in his three-act opera A Quiet Place which was finally performed in New York in 2010, thirty years after its premier at Houston Grand Opera. Ms. Oberdorfer brought the character to life before our eyes. Wearing a black dress with large white polka-dots and red pumps, she could could have stepped out of the 1950's. She sang with clarity and involvement, using her whole body in her communication of the character – a suburban housewife in a dead-end marriage who floats away on the island magic of a “terrible movie” where she spent the afternoon.

All participants took a well-deserved bow with Ms. Hoy who continues to showcase stellar local singers in intellectually satisfying, well presented art song recitals. My only regret is that the Duffy Institute folks did not turn out for this friendly, inviting recital that might have inspired the attending composers to write songs for the next generation.


John Duffy Composers Institute American Liederabend

An evening of art song was added to the schedule of events for the John Duffy Compoers Institute, co-presented with the Virginia Arts Festival on June 9, 2011 at the Robin Hixon Theater in the Jay and Clay Barr Education Center, the new home of the Virginia Arts Festival. We heard a recital by two tenors and a pianist.

A piano solo by John Cage (1912-1992) titled 4' 33”(Four minutes, thirty-three seconds) had Alan Johnson at the piano. Outside the west-facing wall of glass, banners fluttered in the breeze, but in the hall, acoustically isolated from the rest of the building and the street outside, we heard nothing. In 1952 at the premiere of 4' 33”, pianist David Tutor walked on stage, sat at the piano, opened the keyboard lid and did nothing except close the lid and then re-open it at the end and beginning of each movement. His hands never touched the keys.

The staging of our performance was confusing. Mr. Johnson and tenor Tony Boutté came out and took their places. After a while Mr. Johnson moved off the bench, then back on. The singer stood in the bend of the piano and fidgeted. There was no concluding gesture and no applause. Pianist and tenor then presented Henry Purcell Music for a While. During the Cage piece the only sound in the room was the quiet air handler or an occasional movement or titter from the audience. Cage's point was to focus on the fact that there is always some level of sound in the place where you are. The staging of 4' 33” would have been more effective later in the program once a recital format had been established.

Tenor David Tayloe came next, singing a cycle Four Songs to Poems of Thomas Campion (1567-1620) set by American music critic and composer Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). Thankfully we were provided with text sheets: the text is dense and difficult with occasional rhymes that help not at all. The music is ponderous and the baritonal tenor voice of Mr. Tayloe did little to lighten the task of listening.

The next piece, Bucolics (2010) rekindled my enthusiasm for the evening. Michael Alec Rose (b.1959) set poems by Maurice Manning (b.1966), a Tennessee poet who draws on a Southern folk idiom that reminds me of stories collected by the African-American Zora Neale Hurston in the mid-1930's. Addressing with a light, humorous touch the ultimate questions of our human lives: Who made us? Why is the world as it is? How can a man relate to his creator and the other creatures on earth? Though written as a single stanza of many lines – there is no punctuation, no thought is completed on any line. The composer has set the text, letting the singer transform these run-on words into coherent thoughts. Mr. Boutté's clear diction let the spontaneous joy in the words come through. The pianist was an equal partner in creating the magic of this piece.

Returning to historic American repertory, Mr. Tayloe presented Three Songs, Op. 34 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Barber's last song cycle includes Now have I fed and eaten up the rose (text by James Joyce after the German of Gottfried Keller). It is a prayer based on human mortality; A green lowland of pianos was originally a Polish poem but set in English translation. It has preposterous imagery full of humor. The pianos are seen as cows in a field of mud and also as cows milked in concert halls “looking with indifference at the white flowers of the audience;” O boundless, boundless evening, Barber's very last published song, is the transition from sunlight to night set to give us a sweet, warm experience. Accidentals in the piano highlight the text. Mr. Tayloe gave a winning performance.

Mr Boutté then sang three selections by contemporary composers. Under the night forever falling by Zachary Wadsworth (b.1983) has text by Dylan Thomas that forms an hourglass shape on the page. It opens with a long piano prelude creating a plaintive mood before the singer sings of the sleep of death in the dark. The word “rock” is spoken, the one central word dividing the top from the bottom sections of the text. It is an intriguing song that was powerfully delivered. The song have had by Stephen Hoffman (b. 1949) is a nice, simple, honest setting of Mark Campbell's text. Mr. Campbell was also librettist for Rappahannock County, premiered earlier in the Virginia Arts Festival. The text tells of an evening of perfect blue sky, birds, trees and reminisces about how it would be to share this evening with a departed one: “We would have walked . . .and in our awe have had no need for words.”

The closing selection was Act III (Conclusion): Evening Song from Satyagraha, an opera by Philip Glass (b.1937). The text, from the Baghavad Gita, a sacred book of the Hindu religion, is profound. Simple piano accompaniment repeats with gradual changes. The lyrical vocal setting was very inviting.

There were twenty-two audience members, most Duffy Institute staff and fellows. The energy of the event was pretentious and somehow cold. The stated goal was to inspire the developing composers to give us art songs of their own making. Mr. Boutté was warm and involved with his material. Mr. Tayloe seemed detached from the meaning in his texts. Even with these concerns we are still happy that the institute is encouraging the fellows to create new art songs and hope that art song recitals will become an annual feature.


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