There is no lack of either creativity or talent at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. This was on full display during an enterprising and imaginative vocal recital in the intimate acoustics of Watson Chamber Music Hall. The superb singers were tenor Glenn Siebert and mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley, ideally accompanied by pianist Allison Gagnon, all members of the faculty. The two halves of the recital were opened by world premieres, followed by choice and unhackneyed songs in German, English, and French. All the songs were connected to the theme of "seasons" in some way. The printed program, a few misprints aside, was a model of its kind with brief and cogent notes by one of the composers and the two singers.
According to composer Lawrence Dillon, his "The Best Season II" (Wu Men), was written during a stressful period last July: "At the darkest moment, I came across this brief 11th century poem attributed to Hui-k'ai." This was the premiere of his second setting of the poem to tranquil music. The keyboard part was very delicate and opened with a hushed repeated figure in the treble. Another feature was allowing a note to fade to silence while permitting harmonic overtones to have free flow. Both Siebert and Hawley sang the seemingly simple text in lockstep with unaffected directness. Their voices blended beautifully. I thought I heard a suggestion of the pentatonic scale, perhaps because of the long tradition of evoking the Far East by using that scale.
Janine Hawley was featured in a fine selection of four songs from the 53 Mörike Lieder of Hugo Wolf (1860-1903). The order differed from the printed program. "Fußreise” (Journey on foot) evoked walking in nature while reflecting upon Man's place in creation. This song revealed Hawley's full, rich tone and a superbly supported lower range. Her diction throughout was excellent. "Zitronenfalter im April” (Brimstone butterfly in April) was an insouciant delight for both singer and pianist as they suggested aimless flitting of a butterfly. Hawley's full vocal heft was shown over the course of the dark and somber "Im Frühling” (In Spring) in which the poem's heart is in winter. "Er ist's” (It is you) fairly bursts with joy with its lively tempo and glowing vocal line.
After Henry Purcell (1659-95), native mastery of vocal composition arguably lay fallow until Benjamin Britten (1913-76). Britten's operas and song are masterful settings of the English language. Glenn Siebert presented the composer's cycle, Winter Words Op. 52, featuring eight poems by Thomas Hardy. It was written in the fecund period of 1951-53 during which Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw were composed. According to Siebert's note, Britten's recurring theme of "the conflict between experience and innocence" is used throughout the cycle. Siebert's warm, even tone and crystal-clear diction were evident throughout the performance. Intonation was spot on while phrasing and care for word meaning were exemplary. Britten's piano part is far from insignificant with extended solo portions at the opening or close of a song. The interlaced fingering and suggestion of the irregular rhythms of an old steam-driven train were striking in the second song, "Midnight on the Great Western” (or The Journeying Boy). The poem resonated with the loneliness of the young Britten's having been sent away to reside in a Public School. Siebert brought out the humor and serious undertone of "Wagtail and Baby” (a satire). Singer and pianist sketched a vivid flitting of birds in "Proud Songsters (Thrushes, Finches and Nightingales)." Siebert evoked the dark night of Britten's soul in the concluding "Before Life and After."
How many college freshman composition majors can expect a fully professional performance of the first art song? That is just what Siebert, Hawley, and Gagnon gave Jeremy Phillips. According to the program, Phillips drafted his setting of a poem by Lucy Maud Montgomery (author of the Ann of Green Gables novels) last October. After meeting with the performers, he completed it in early November, 2008. It has an appealing, long introduction for the keyboard. Each alternating line of the poem, except the last two or so, is taken by one singer in turn. Both join in duo to end each of the three stanzas. The solo line pattern differs between stanzas. The music is very audience friendly, melodic and tonal, and engaging. Phillips is a promising talent.
Nothing could be more clearly seasonal than Les nuits d'été by Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Only five of the six songs were performed, "Absence" being omitted. The cycle is best known in the guise for singer and orchestra through the classic recordings of Régine Crespin and Janet Baker. The original piano version was composed in 1841 while the orchestral version dates from 1856. The 1841 version was composed for either baritone, contralto, or mezzo-soprano but it has been adapted for higher voices. Siebert brought out the almost Mozartian elegance and wit of the opening "Villanelle" and he evoked the reckless, vivid imaginary sailor of the concluding "L'île inconnue” (Unknown Island). Hawley's plush voice luxuriated in the languid unfolding of "Le Spectre de la Rose” (The Ghost of the Rose). Her hushed phrasing of the last stanza was magical. She brought out the brooding sorrow of "Sur les lagunes” (On the Lagoons) which shares the atmosphere of Rachmaninoff's Ile of the Dead. Her low note in the line "S'étend comme un linceul" was darkly resonant. Alas, a stupid cell phone spoiled the opening of "Au cimetiére. Clair de lune” (To the cemetery. Moonlight). Hawley brought a vivid intensity to the middle stanza which found her higher range in fine form.
There was an amusing slip or spoonerism in Janine Hawley's biographical note which reports she "lives in North Carolina with her husband, Dale Girard and their two songs!"