A concert in Baldwin Auditorium on Duke's East Campus on September 23 was a benefit supporting the John Bartlett Care Fund Endowment, given in memory of Walter W. Heid, brother of the accompanist par excellence, David Heid. The program reminds us that "Walter H. Heid was born in Natrona Heights, PA. A graduate of West Virginia University with a degree in opera, Heid was the Executive Director of the Easter Music Festival in Greensboro for 10 years. During his time at EMF, its endowment increased from less than $20,000 to more than $500,000 and the festival became one of the most prestigious in the country."
Soprano Susan Dunn was the featured soloist, and the program included some rarely-heard music by Liszt, Puccini, and Burleigh, some gorgeous art songs, and some selections from Porgy and Bess. It was a delightful evening, displaying the talents of two extraordinary, musically astute talents that grace the Triangle.
Dunn opened the program with the familiar anthem, often attributed to Handel but generally agreed not to be his work, "Dank sei dir, Herr" ("Thanks be to Thee"). In the romanticized arrangement of Siegfried Ochs, it was honey in the voice of Dunn and the accompaniment of Heid. To the rich harp-like arpeggios of the accompaniment, Dunn poured out a velvet-smooth, perfectly-controlled sound that melted the heart and nearly brought tears to the eyes – all the things the Romantics sought in their expression of an idealistic existence.
A set of infrequently-heard songs by Franz Liszt was a revelation to this music lover. The five we heard are only a handful of over 70 songs he wrote. The accompaniments were wonderfully descriptive and in some cases rather florid. Liszt is quoted in the program notes as referring to some of his earlier songs as "inflatedly sentimental and crammed too full in the accompaniment." Accordingly, he rewrote and reworked many of his earlier works. It is well known that Liszt did not choose the greatest texts, but the melodies and the settings he gave them captured the essence of the poetry and told the stories clearly and musically. Most impressive was the first of the set, "Die drei Zigueuner" ("The three gypsies"), which relates the activities of a gypsy group from the perspective of a passer-by. The accompaniment was almost orchestral as it matched with the voice the lives of the gypsies and the shifting moods of the observer. Dunn and Heid worked together to give a virtual tone poem in this piece.
The other Liszt songs had more refined accompaniment, and "Die Lorelei" clearly reflected the influence of Liszt's son-in-law, Richard Wagner. Of course, this influence ran both ways: it is known that Wagner borrowed significant bits of Liszt's work, even in The Ring. Hearing these songs was a most welcome and pleasant experience.
With the first three notes of the next set of songs we knew we were in Puccini-Land. For me, "Avanti, Urania" ("Onward, Urania") was reminiscent of Butterfly, though it was different as it developed. Another song, "Sole e amore" ("The Sun and Love"), was a clear borrowing from La Bohème. Others were different, seldom-heard Puccini charmers, all through-composed with no repeats, no melismas (long runs on single vowels), and written with Puccini's great gift for melody in both the vocal line and the accompaniment. Dunn, with marvelously controlled and focused dynamics from pianissimo to fortissimo, sent these songs to the audience with a generous serving of affection.
After intermission, we heard two songs by one of the great art song composers, Hugo Wolf. "An eine Aeolsharfe" ("To an Aeolian Harp") is a lament, perhaps harkening back to the early loss of his brother. This was balanced with "Er ist's" ("It is he!"), a more positive song focusing on the hope of new life in the springtime. The thing that struck me while watching Heid playing the grand accompaniment to this song was that the keys of the piano seemed to offer no resistance to his touch. It was as though the piano anticipated it, was prepared for it, and welcomed it. The performance of these two musicians together was indeed high art.
It seems that most recitals I have attended recently follow a programming pattern beginning with serious art songs and arias, then winding down with some lighter American or other national songs and concluding with some Gershwin, Kern, or show tunes. This is not a bad way to go! For their Americana selection, Dunn and Heid chose Harry T. Burleigh's Saracen Songs. Many of us have sung and all of us have heard the marvelous settings of plantation songs arranged by Burleigh, but few have heard the other aspects of his considerable talent and skill. I can no do better here than to quote from the program notes: " The Saracen Songs, seven sensuously melodic and harmonically transparent songs, are beautiful evocations of the poetic language and desert setting." That character, so different from the spiritual settings, brings to mind a tribute to Burleigh published after his death: "He seemed aware of deeper tones of brotherhood and throbbing harmonies of humanity which others did not hear." Indeed, the Saracen Songs were filled with singing melodies, clever accompaniment, an aura of wonder, and a delight in the relationships that make life a treasure.
Gershwin songs, the last two of which were from Porgy and Bess, gave Dunn the opportunity to become even more intimate with the audience, eliciting foot tapping with "I got rhythm," chuckles with "Lorelei," chills up the spine with "Summertime," and tears of heartbreak with "My man's gone now." For an encore, she chose the simple and charming Irish folksong "I know where I'm going." After several minutes of warm and appreciative applause, we all went our separate ways, knowing that we had been somewhere special together. Our sadness for the loss of special people like Walter W. Heid was somewhat assuaged – and our hopes were lifted – because of organizations like the John Bartlett Care Fund Endowment.