A great beginning of the second season
for Art Song of Williamsburg

On November 2, 2001, tenor Michael Posey and pianist Ruth Easterling Winters gave gave a wonderful concert of songs titled "The Inspiration of Poetry." The program opened with sonnets of Michelangelo set by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

Britten set seven Michelangelo sonnets in 1940 while living at the house of Dr. & Mrs. Mayer at Amityville on Long Island. Britten and Peter Pears,his life companion, had come to American in 1939. This song cycle is the first set of songs composed exclusively for Peter Pears' voice. Phillip Britt has written that the songs have a "huge Italianate span of melody thrust through the piece like a girder..." In setting the words of Michelangelo written to his male beloved Tomaso de Cavaliere, Britten's choice of text seems deliberate.

Sonnet XXX ends with

...my wishes are contained entirely in yours,
and my thoughts take shape in your heart;
my speech is formed by your breath.
It seems that I am like the moon by itself -
our eyes cannot discern it in the heavens,
except for that part which is illuminated by the sun.

(Translation DECCA 1992, Andrew Huth)

Michael Posey sang with an elegant restraint emphasising the innate lyricism of the poetry so well expressed in Britten's settings.

The music of Alexander Zemlinsky (1872-1942) is not well known today, but his song cycle Five Songs on poems by five different poets were concerned with man's love for woman. Entbietung (Invitation), the second song in the cycle is full of sensual passion conveyed in exciting vocal sounds. The lyrics end with "...when do you come? My torch blazes, let it glow, let it glow. Adorn your hair with wild poppy."

Mr. Posey wrote an extended paper and presented a concert of art songs by Zemlinsky for his major project to receive his DMA. To hear this repertory was a rare treat.

Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), who was Zemlinsky's pupil in 1895, and later his brother-in-law and friend , wrote the next song cycle, Brettl Lieder. One often thinks of Schönberg's music as demanding on the listener, even harsh, but that is not the case in his Cabaret Songs. The sensual and passionate expression of love of man for woman continues in these whimsical songs. Mr. Posey was up to the challenge of capturing the mood of each song and bringing it to the listener in a lovely tenor voice.

Another surprise for Steve and me were the lovely songs of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Three Sonnets of Petrarch. Petrarch (1304-1374), an early lyric poet, wrote for Laura, who lives in his passionate words. The music is a tour de force for the pianist, and Ruth Winters played brilliantly.

Next we heard the final song cycle by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), written in 1945 and titled Three Songs. We reviewed a Virginia Art Song Society meeting on music of Barber in our last issue. Hearing Now Have I Fed and Eaten Up the Rose and O Boundless, Boundless Evening by a tenor voice was welcome but the high point for us was hearing the humorous and bizarre text of A Green Lowland of Pianos done live.

The program closed with Blue Mountain Ballads (1946) by Paul Bowles (1910-1999): Heavenly Grass, Lonesome Man, Cabin and Sugar in the Cane. "The poems by Tennessee Williams employ the vernacular of the deep South where Williams was raised and Bowles' bluesy, rhythmic music compliments it nicely." (Phillip Ramey, liner notes). Michael Posey caught the winsome melancholy of Cabin, which laments the aftermath of a sexual indescretion, and the pent-up sexual energy of Sugar in the Cane in a bluesy, sly way: "I'm sweet sugar in the cane, never touched except by rain. If you touch me God save you, these summer days are hot and blue." Williams and Bowles, both gay, had previously worked together in New York when Bowles, wrote the music for The Glass Menagerie in its initial theatrical production. Bowles had a considerable reputation in the 1930's and 40's composing incidental music for plays by Orsen Wells, William Saroyan, John Houseman and for ballets for Lincoln Kirstein.

In 1947, Bowles left the United States and settled in Tangier, Morroco where he lived until his death in 1999. Here he concentrated on writing. His most famous novel, The Sheltering Sky (1949), was made into a film in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolucci. Bowles makes a cameo appearance in the film. His music was mostly forgotten until the 1990's when a new generation of American musicians and singers became interested in it again. These charming, witty pieces are a treasure to be savored by art song enthusiasts.

In the pre-concert lecture, "Three Pairs for a Full House", Glenn Winters commented that Bowles packed twenty lifetimes into one. Dr. Winters packed much interesting material and some fine gossip about the evening's composers into one lecture. The encore piece, Ah! May the Red Rose Live Always, words by Stephen Foster (1850), was composed by Dr. Winters, husband of pianist Ruth Winters.

Two other things impress me about Art Song of Williamsburg. The first is how Genevieve McGiffert has been able to create a genial atmosphere and at the same time provide a high quality musical experience. They are well on their way to reaching a goal of 250 subscriptions for the season.

The second is the program booklets. They are a pleasure to hold in your hand and beautiful to the eye. Dr. McGiffert widely researches each composer and is able to draw on her years of experience to give us a rich background and history of the songs we hear. This is in addition to the song texts and translations. The "Inspiration of Poetry" booklet contained twenty pages. The hall is lighted so you can follow while you listen. Everything is just right to help the listener get a full experience of the music.

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