Recital Media Review Print



Charming Recent Sets of Art Songs from the South

August 30, 2016 - Easthampton, MA:


Southerly: Art Songs of the American South. Dan Locklair (b.1949): Portraits (1983); John Musto (b.1954): Shadow of the Blues (1986); James Sclater (b.1943): Beyond the Rainbow (1998); (Cecil) Price Walden (b.1991): Abide With Me; Five Songs of Love (2015). Jos Milton, tenor, Melinda Coffey Armstead, piano. Albany: Troy 1622, © 2016, TT 50:33, $16.99. (Listing is in alphabetical, not performance order.)

The program opens with the Sclater set that uses six texts by Ovid S. Vickers (b.1930). Some have the feel of traditional folk tales and tunes, and include a couple, "Miss Emma" and "Nancy Hargrave," that set the stage for Locklair's set that uses texts by Emily Herring Wilson (b.1939), that actually quote others who told the stories, which follows. Price Walden's set, commissioned by Milton, follows this: two of its love songs are poems by Walt Whitman (1819-92), two are well-known hymns that he knows from his Southern Baptist childhood (but that I associate more with the late 19th- and early 20th-century Spiritual Revival tradition) w/ altered or new tunes, and one is a poem by Philip Rice (?; a personal acquaintance). Musto's set, which uses texts by Harlem Renaissance poet, Missouri-born Langston Hughes (1902-67), closes the program, so I suppose it qualifies as a Southern work even though Musto is a NYC composer.

Walden is, like Milton, based at the University of Mississippi ("Ole Miss") in Oxford, though he is a student (or perhaps a recent graduate?), while Milton (BM, Trinity Univ, Hartford, CT; MM, UMass Amherst; DMA, Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins Univ., Baltimore, MD) is a member of the music department faculty. Indeed, it was his appointment to this position in 2011 that introduced him to and piqued his interest in the Southern art song tradition, which led to the creation of this program and recording, although it doesn't really use material from that lengthy tradition, but rather modern works that seek to extend it into the 21st century, quite successfully over all. Milton is also an active singer across the South, especially in Texas, where he sings with the Austin-based, Grammy® award-winning choral group Conspirare.

The sets offer considerable variety, textually, musically, and texturally, both internally and amongst each other, and they interrelate well as a program. I found the Sclater and Walden sets the most creative, original, and interesting in form; this is somewhat striking because they are by the oldest and youngest of the composers respectively, and both use childhood experiences for their inspiration. The performance has a very intimate feel, almost as if Milton were performing for the listener personally. His warm, light tenor suits this music to a T; it conveys the mood and spirit of the works quietly and persuasively, as if he were conversing with the listener, narrating the tales and musing on the events, as befits an art song recital. Armstead's support is likewise warm, solid and perfectly balanced. The curious fact that this recording was made in Pebble Beach, CA, is probably explained by that being Armstead's home base. One can only assume that it was also presented around Mississippi and elsewhere in the South?

Milton's program note is well written and very enjoyable because it is so personalized. His notes about the specific songs are informative because he quotes their composers in some instances and explains the relationship of the music to the texts. Thus, the listener is well prepared to fully appreciate the listening experience. The booklet provides some biographical information about most of the composers, but less for the poets; I needed to do a great deal of research work with Google to find the specifics for the above header/listing to make it bibliographically complete and correct and have been unable to locate with certainty one of the poets. This is not the sort of presentation of information that I expect from the holder of a doctorate.

My main complaint about this lovely recording is that it's way too short; there's room for at least one, likely two more sets of songs in the same vein, and more surely exist.