Lori Laitman's Becoming a Redwood Comes to CD

      What do you give your husband for a 50th birthday gift? If you are the composer Lori Laitman you give him a song cycle reflecting on life together, love, death and healing. She has chosen poetry by Dana Gioia, published in 2001, that is spare but emotionally deeply probing. The composer's word painting feels natural. The lyrical music joins the words enriching and enhancing the feeling that is there in the poetry.

      The CD takes its title from the art song cycle Becoming a Redwood written from August through November 2003 and premiered by soprano Barbara Quintiliani with the composer at the piano at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. on May 5, 2004. At that time she shared a recording of the event with us "for your ears only." Now we can share our enthusiasm for this well-crafted, exciting music with our readers. The first of the four songs called The Song is loosely based on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 -1926). The core idea is "...all that ever touched us, you and me, touched us together like a bow that from two strings could draw one voice."

      From the composer's notes in the CD booklet we learn that the emotional centerpiece of the cycle is Pentecost, written after the death of the poet's infant son. The changes in the father's perception caused by the child's death are sensitively reflected in the musical setting. The next song, Curriculum Vitae gives a release of intensity using the suggestion of the sound of a distant carillon chiming the hour as the text reflects on the passing of time and the unpredictability of events.

      In Becoming a Redwood a human comes into a field against a redwood grove and reflects on natural events from the perspective of the plants and animals there. There are sounds of wind in trees and grass, coyotes hunting, frogs and crickets. This is not romantic nature poetry but rather a musing on the transcendent consciousness of a redwood standing for centuries in the same spot, or the pain grass endures breaking through the earths crust. The human element returns with the last line "there is no silence but when danger comes." After the text is finished there is a haunting piano ending that suggests a diminished but prevailing sadness, emotionally tying this song to the other three.

      Becoming a Redwood is one of five song cycles found on this CD which also contains four individual songs - over 76 minutes of new music. Three of the cycles are settings on poems by women. In Early Snow, Mary Oliver's poetry has a psychological subtlety rarely found in romantic poets of the past. These poems, Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me, Blue Iris and Early Snow are about being fully alive in this moment and open to present experience. Though there are complete texts in the booklet the natural American speech settings are understandable except in the very highest notes. Jennifer Check is soprano soloist and Warren Jones is at the piano.

      In Daughters mezzo-soprano Patricia Green is joined by violin (Juliette Kang), cello (Thomas Kraines), and pianist Kirsten Taylor who commissioned the piece. The composer describes her process: "I composed the vocal lines first, illuminating the text ... and used the additional colors and textures [of a trio] to further enhance the meaning of the words."

      Both poets are Holocaust survivors and both came to England to escape Nazi Germany. Anne Ranasinghe married and raised a family in Sri Lanka. Her poetry has been translated into seven languages. Mascot and Symbol and A Letter to my Daughter are settings of her poems. I see a mother trying to come to an understanding of her relationship to her daughter who has chosen her own path in life that only superficially includes her mother.

      Karen Gershon also married and raised a family and briefly emigrated to Israel but returned to England when her daughter came back to study there. She died after a heart-bypass operation in 1993. She left behind six collections of poetry and six books, three fiction and three non-fiction. Stella Remembered tells the story of a mother who would trade all the photographs for a single memory of her daughter turning toward her. Each song speaks of the challenges of a mother - daughter relationship. Both women lost their own mothers to the holocaust. Lori Laitman, who has one daughter and two sons says "I was touched on a very emotional level."

      The third woman composer C.G.R. (Charlene) Shepard's poetry is used in Long Pond Revisited. The first four songs are from a long poem titled "Dear Rick." The songs I Looked for Reasons, The Pond Seems Smaller, Late in the Day and Days Turn are an open letter to her dear friend who was a compassionate social worker, dancer and sailor. He has died leaving the poet to come alone to their Long Pond, Maine retreat each summer. The cello (Marcy Rosen) accompaniment compliments the baritone voice of Randall Scarlata and provides the timbre needed to express the spareness and loneliness of her life alone. The songs capture and enhance the mood of the poetry in a very beautiful and moving way.

      A happier exploration of a child's birth and early life experiences related to the fact of family history is found in The Throwback, a cycle of five songs on poems by Paul Muldoon (1951) filled with wit and caution. Baritone William Sharp with Warren Jones at the piano gives a wonderful performance of these witty and intelligent songs.

      The individual songs are creative gems. Thomas Lux has in the past provoked settings of great, good humor by Ms. Laitman - This Space Available does it once again. Bass Gary Poster is the very effective singer, with the composer at the piano. She also plays the three individual songs that set poems by Dana Gioia. The tenor Robert McPherson is soloist in The Apple Orchard, a text that explores nostalgia for a love that might have been, a look backward to a "spring's ephemeral cathedral" where the couple meet and almost connect. This theme of beginnings full of promise that go nowhere seems to be a preoccupation of this poet.

      The cabaret setting of Being Happy (Lee Poulis, baritone) is a frantic, driving sort of song about a summer affair in Seattle. The music slows to a crawl as the writer looks back wondering if it really was love then, yet nothing deeper ever came along.

      The final song, Equations of the Light is another poem about relationships. In a duet, the singers, soprano Sari Gruber and tenor McPherson, share the text, speaking of their separate but parallel experience as they discover a quiet, tree-lined street, believing that it is a conjunction of their separate lives. The piano setting begins noisily but suddenly stops as they discover the street. The music then over time builds dramatically as they explore. Dissonance develops, traffic bellows and sadness prevails as they come to the end of the street and return to their separate lives.

      This is an impressive CD on several counts. Contemporary art song composers often take years to become widely known. Lori Laitman has been successful in getting her music out to an audience of singers and listeners. On this her third CD there are nine singers, three pianists (including the composer) and a trio of string instrumentalists active on stage and recital halls in America today. The performances are outstanding throughout.

      This is an indication of how much excitement there is in the music community for the songs of this award-winning composer. Personally I have heard some 90 songs by her in concert and primarily from her CDs. All are on the Albany Records label: Mystery - The Songs of Lori Laitman, August 2000 (TROY 393), Dreaming, May 2003 (TROY 570) and this October 2006 release Becoming a Redwood (TROY 865). Andrew Garland features her songs on his recitals as do many other up-and-coming young singers. We would love to hear from listeners who attend recitals where her work is featured. Her web address is http://www.artsongs.com/

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