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"New Voices From Shropshire" is both the title of a concert held at ECU and also a project of the ECU Music Department to stimulate new compositions featuring the words of poet A. E. Housman's beautiful and dark collection A Shropshire Lad. The concert presented fourteen of the resulting compositions with more to follow. The composers were, in order, Michael Slayton, Mark Richardson, Melinda Wagner, Fahad Siadat, Kamala Sankaram, Juliana Hall, Matt Boehler, Mark Alan Taggart, Daniel Bernard Roumain (DBR), Edward Jacobs, Andre Myers, Tom Cipullo, Scott Gendel, and Melissa Shiflet.
The Fletcher Recital Hall was about two thirds full; the crowd was intensely enthusiastic and greeted tenor Daniel Shirley and pianist Eric Stellrecht with a roar when they came on stage. The songs were grouped into sets of three (with one of two), which gave the performers enough time to walk offstage, have a swallow of water, and return to more strong applause. With fourteen different composers, there was a great deal of stylistic difference among the pieces.
"On Your Midnight Pallet Lying" was in moderate tempo and was lovely. Slayton's piece was one of three that I marked with a star in my program, to indicate my great pleasure. "Along the Fields as We Came By” was written with jerky rhythm, and the music's darkness matched the darkness of the verse. "Oh, When I Was in Love With You" was very reminiscent of operatic recitative. The stormy "From Far, From Eve and Morning" contains a dense rumbling bass in the accompaniment. The piano's right hand includes a number of flourishes that sounded like the clatter of rain on a roof.
"Loveliest of Trees" showcased Shirley's complete command of his voice and of the music. While "Bredon Hill" offered a chance for some programmatic writing about English church bells, a totally distinctive sound to Britons, it did not seem to be familiar to Juliana Hall in this instance. "Think No More, Lad" works right up to a musical piano climax! Stellrecht was more than up for it – nice work. "Into My Heart" had a couple of places where the extreme range asked Shirley to force just a little more than his best. Meanwhile, the accompaniment has a few chords that border on jazz. "To an Athlete Dying Young" was dedicated to the late Robert Samels. Shirley said he first heard the poem's words at Samels' funeral in 2005. This was another of the pieces I starred as one of the best of the concert considered in its entirety. The audience agreed, applauding powerfully at the end.
"Nothing Stands" reminded me again of how wonderful Shirley's diction was throughout the concert. He read each poem aloud before singing it, which was helpful in understanding the context, but definitely not necessary to understand the lyrics that followed. Everything Shirley sang was always completely understandable. "On Moonlight Heath and Lonesome Bank" was emotional and powerful.
By the final set of three – "But the Night," "The Long Road," and "On the Idle Hill of Summer" – about all the textural variations on piano and tenor had been worked out, but Shirley and Stellrecht were unfatigued and the beauty continued to the end. (There were some interesting melismas in the composition of "On the Idle Hill.") During the boisterous applause and standing ovation at the end, Shirley called for bows from Jacobs, Richardson, Taggart, the composers and colleagues who were present.
Modern art song style does not offer a lot to love; rather, there is much food for hard study. There was not a lilting melody or a jaunty rhythm in any of these pieces. It was Shirley's distinct and lovely voice and his practiced but relaxed technique, along with Stellrecht's careful and musical playing, that made this a fine concert.