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John James Audubon, The Birds of America, Plate #26: “Carolina Parrot,” 1827–1838, Hand-colored engraving and aquatint on paper, (paper) 40 x 26 in., Transfer from the North Carolina State Library
Hummm. A song recital? Pretty rare, hereabouts. With all songs by the same person? Rarer still. And the composer's alive? Not likely. And all of the above on a chamber music series? Sure to tank the box office. And on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with temperatures in the low 80s? Are you completely nuts?
A healthy swath of folks must be, for the auditorium at the NC Museum of Art was substantially full for a marvelous program of music by Kenneth Frazelle, the Jacksonville [NC] native, b.1955, who has devoted a large portion of his creative life to composing – and painting, and making poetry – here, in the state of his birth, mostly while based at the UNC School of the Arts. The concert was the last of this season's Sights and Sounds on Sundays programs, presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. Along the way, there were plenty of sights to go with the sounds, as generous selections of photos were shown during the singing.
The afternoon's singer, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen, currently hangs her hat in Texas, but she's a Tar Heel too (ex Bladen County), and she was educated at the Brevard Music Center and the UNCSA.
One would be hard-pressed to find more passionate and eloquent spokespersons for Southern art and culture, as the headline suggests, those words having been lifted from Frazelle's poetry, set in the afternoon's concluding group which consisted of eight (of ten) selections from Songs in the Rear View Mirror, a work this singer has previously championed (along with Laurelyn Dossett and Anthony Dean Griffey).
In this performance, Findlen was partnered by pianist Rick Rowley of UT Austin's Butler School of Music, who projected total mastery of this surely challenging but ever-engaging music at levels of commitment absolutely in keeping with the singer's.
This is music that, in its social and cultural allusions – and, alternately, its human drama, poignancy, emotion, acceptance, melancholy, sadness, despair, and resignation – can, and on this occasion often did, speak to its listeners directly. But there's humor there, too, reflecting the spirit of the region from which the music (and the texts, which also included poetry by fellow Tar Heel A.R. Ammons) have sprung.
Prior to this stunning final group, we'd heard two versions of the folk song "In East Virginny" and excerpts from Vanishing Birds and Lullabies and Birdsongs, pieces that admirably drew us into the composer's often-achingly beautiful sound world.
The third group began with three selections from Book of Blue Flowers (2010), for solo piano, before turning to the aforementioned Songs in the Rear View Mirror.
That Rowley came into this undertaking fairly late in the game might never have been guessed or surmised, so polished was his playing.
Findlen is an amazing vocalist whose interpretations took in her whole being, her immediate surroundings, and her constant interaction with her artistic partner. That she is heavily invested in this music was constantly in evidence. Her vocal radiance, her immaculate diction, her projections of emotion and nuances of meaning were remarkable, by any standard.
Frazelle is a state treasure whose music has enriched ever-expanding audiences since well before his string quartet was among the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's earliest commissions (in 1990). Thus his "return" on this gorgeous spring day was not really out of the blue, after all. In remarks before the second group, the composer spoke of the importance of art in North Carolina, for North Carolinians, mentioning an early trip to this very museum (albeit in its old location, on East Morgan Street). He himself has substantially augmented the quality and amount of art we, his beneficiaries, may now savor. Bravo.
Note: For lots more information about this program, click here.