December Songs
African American Arts Songs
Porgy and Bess
Hansel and Gretel
December Songs Fully Staged

Spring Dance Concert


A New Art Song Cycle at the Governor's School

Alan Fischer

      It was Sunday afternoon, February 3 at Chandler Recital Hall and A Celebration of American Music III was happening. This celebration of music from musical theatre, opera and song was presented by the students of the Vocal Music Department of the Governor's School for the Arts. As we sat waiting for the program to begin, Alan Fischer, department chairman was visible, tweaking details and making sure things would go smoothly.

      The program opened with a choral arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner sung by the group of about 40 students. The soprano descant at the end was stunning.

      From early American music Dr. Lee Tepley, led the Advanced Vocal Ensemble in four choral pieces by William Billings (1746-1800) of Boston. This was followed by several solos from musical theatre and a song from Gian Carlo Menotti's opera The Old Maid and the Thief : Steal me sweet thief, sung by a senior student Megan Murrray, soprano.

      The set ended with a dramatic presentation of the song cycle December Songs by Murray Yeston. As I said in my notes when we announced this program in late January, during a recent trip to New York city, Alan Fischer and his students met with Mr. Yeston, composer of Phantom, Titanic, and Grand Hotel and he suggested they stage the cycle with five young sopranos singing two songs each portraying one facet of a young woman's reaction to the end of an unhappy romance. Shannon Gibson, junior, sang December Snow and Where are you now? Danielle Walker, senior, sang Please, let's not even say hello and When your love is new. Bethany Wherry, junior, sang Bookseller in the rain and My grandmother's love letters. Chrystal Williams, sophomore, sang I am longing and I had a dream about you that tells of being happy together but ends in pain. The last singer, Jessie Buckman, junior, sang the conclusion of the cycle By the river and What a relief. With well chosen stage actions and gestures the performers created the intense inner drama of these songs. Each performer remained on stage for the rest of the cycle and shared the enthusiastic curtain call at the end. There was fine singing thoughout. The pianist for this piece was Michael Regan, a fine performer and teacher.

      After the intermission there was a wonderful surprise for the art song enthusiast when students performed four Afro-American art songs. Their collaborator at the piano was Robert Brown. Nadia Williams, senior, sang Margaret Bond's Minstrel man, and Dream Variations with text by Langston Hughes from a song cycle Three Dream Portraits. Rae Wynn-Grant, soprano and junior, sang a short, sparkling song Oh, didn't it rain, arranged by Harry T. Burleigh. The high point for this listener was Soliloquy composed by John W. Work, with a text by Myrtle Vorst Shephard and sung by mezzo-soprano Rosemarie Stephens-Booker. The song ends with these words: If death be only half as sweet as life, I will not fear to go, I love life so! I love life so ! And as this sophomore spun out the vocal gold of the music, it melted my heart.

      There were many other musical pleasures in this lengthy program. A scene from John Corigliano's contemporary opera The Ghosts of Versailles: Come now my darling ... staged by Vernon Hartman of the Metropolitan Opera. With a polished maturity that belies his years, sophomore Ryan Green gave a beautiful performance of If ever I would leave you from Camelot (Lerner and Loewe). Some twenty additional selections from musical theatre showcased a number of talented young people and gave them the opportunity to sing a solo before a live audience.

      Once again the full chorus came together to end the show on a high note. From Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin: O, I can't sit down, I ain' got no shame, and It ain't necessarily so, which featured a polished performance by tenor Curtis Holloman, senior, as Sportin' Life.

      The community is greatly blessed to have Alan Fischer and his staff make this quality of performance possible. A few years ago Alan taught Barbara Quintiliani. One wonders which of these talented young performers will in years to come bring us new art song recitals.

      The Governor's School next performance is Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretl at the Roper Center on April 12, 13 & 14. I hope to see you there.

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Hansel and Gretel Comes to the Roper

      Engelbert Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel (1893) received a wonderful performance by the Governor's School for the Arts Department of Vocal Music on April 12, 13 and 14 at the Roper Performing Arts Center.

      There were many young children in the audience and I wondered how they would react. It is one thing to keep the attention of adults and quite another to hold the interest of the six-year-old a few seats from us. He was on the edge of his seat waiting for the witch. It worked for all of us and it was a great show. The sets were the most elaborate we have seen at any GSA production and the thirty piece orchestra necessitated the use of sound enhancement for the voices.

      The voices were wonderful. Usaully the roles of the children are done by adults playing at being children. The teenage singers looked and sounded the parts and had exciting vocal tones. Singing the opera in English began in 1894 in London, just one year after it was composed.

      Two complete casts performed. We saw the Saturday night cast. In a libretto based on a Grimm fairy tale and written by the composer's sister Adelhaid Wette, the chief characters are brother and sister: Hansel played by Rae Wynn-Grant and Gretel played by Jessie Buckman. After a lively and tuneful overture we first see the children outside a rustic cottage. He is making a broom and she wants him to play. Soon they are romping and singing an old German folk tune and she teaches him to dance. The singers create a believable and charming scene with their clear diction and sweet tones and the audience is drawn into the story. Miss Wynn-Grant and Miss Buckman appear in every scene of the opera but one and have no trouble carrying the show.

      The Mother, Gertrud, appears and is cross with the children and sends them into the forest to pick strawberries. Megan Murray sings the role and evokes our pity for her family's poverty. Exhausted, she falls asleep only to be awakened when Andrew Seay as the father, Peter, comes home singing from the market fair where he was able to sell all their home-made brooms and buy food. You first hear his fine baritone voice from off-stage, and if you've attended other GSA events, it's unmistakable. He is happy until he learns that the children are in the forest where the witch lives. He panics and the parents rush to look for them.

      The children do find berries and pick a basketful but they get tired and end up resting and eating the berries. It is beginning to get dark and Gretel is scared. Hansel reassures her that he will take care of her. They lie down to sleep and the forest magic takes over as they sing their evening prayer. This calls forth the fourteen angels to guard them and the Sandman played by Christine Loyola who beautifully sings I am the Sleep Fairy as she sprinkles fairy dust in their eyes so they will sleep happily.

      The next morning they are awakened by the Dew Fairy, excellently sung by Sarah Piscitelli, and discover the gingerbread house. When they start eating it for breakfast, out pops the witch played by Danielle Walker, who does a fine job of terrifying the children on stage and in the audience. Gretel is smart and tricks the witch to put her head in the oven to see if it is hot enough to roast Hansel, and pushes her in.

      Eventually, the parents show up and so do all the children trapped by the witch's magic. There is a great celebration by all and singing and dancing end the evening.

      The stage direction was by Vernon Hartman, who often sings at the Metropolitan Opera. Alan Fisher was the conductor. Once again, Alan has given our community a wonderful gift of music through the talents of so many fine young singers and instrumentalists. Thanks to all.

December Songs Returns Fully Staged

      What do December Songs and Andrea Chénier have in common? Singers from the Governor's School for the Arts! Alan Fischer, chairman of the vocal music department sang the roles of L'Incredible and Abate in Virginia Opera's Andrea Chénier and four of the five vocalists for December Songs were in the chorus of Chénier: Eboni Amos, Jessie Buckman, Bethany Wherry and Crystal Williams.

      They were joined by Raye Wynn-Grant in a fully staged presentation of December Songs conceived and directed by Fischer and performed on January 18th and 19th at the Black Box Theatre. Fischer and seven students had met with the composer Maury Yeston in NYC in early 2002. While Yeston's work had been staged with dancers, together they conceived of staging it with only singers. December Songs was written for one voice, but in this staging five young women acted and sang the heroine at various stages in the evolution of a relationship that ended in a breakup. These glorious young singers did a fine job with these interesting songs, part cabaret, part art song. Bethany Wherry's diction was outstanding in its clarity, but all were good. For more information see our review of March 20, 2002, Issue #9. The cooperation of Shaun Crawford, designer/technical director and Steve J. Earle, chairman of the theatre department helped make it possible.

      The program titled Mood Swings! also included 6 Short Comedies written by Christopher Durang and acted by a talented and enthusiastic troupe of GSA students.

Governors School for the Arts Spring Dance Concert

      Carmina Burana by Carl Orff was a major showcase for many talented local performers at the Wells Theater May 30 and 31, 2003. In this chamber performance Alan Fischer conducted, Robert Brown and Michael Regan were on piano, Nick Bartolotta was the timpanist and James Session was the percussionist. Robert Brown directed the chorus of some thirty well-trained students who sang this difficult music with panache. The musicians were in the pit, the dancers were on stage and the chorus was in the boxes, females on the right and males on the left form our perspective in the audience.

      Todd Rosenlieb was the choreographer and Jorja Jean did the medieval styled costumes. We had an excellent experience of so much creativity and talent from the Governor's School for the Arts students and faculty.

      The first half of the program was with recorded music. Heart of the Gaels was colorful and very happy in mood, based on Celtic music and dance. Paquita had Viennese music and provided a showcase for a number of classical ballet solos and duets, all in beautiful traditional costumes.

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