Recital Review Print

Nature Transcendent: Songs Reflect the Hudson River School

August 29, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:

The first concert of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's Sights and Sounds on Sunday, entitled "American Transcendental," paired with the exhibit NC Museum of Art's exhibit, "American Eden: Hudson River Masterworks." The August 29 concert in the NCMA's auditorium took place mid-afternoon of the final day of the exhibit. Unlike most of this series that I have reviewed, much of the music and vocal texts actually shared much of the same heady intellectual mix, the creation of a distinctly American aesthetic separate from Europe, and the Transcendentalism of Emerson, with the exhibit's artists.

The program, a mixture of art songs and music for cello and piano, was in the nimble hands of pianist Jane Hawkins and cellist Jonathan Kramer along with one of the state's pre-eminent song interpreters, soprano Penelope Jensen. With the Steinway's lid fully raised, allowing a full palette of timbre, Hawkins played without seriously covering the lines of her partners. I do not care to count how long I have savored Jensen's even and expressive voice. While it may have lost some of its flexibility and luster, she has few peers in welding the meaning of a text with the music. Kramer has a knack for finding fascinating and unjustly neglected scores. To this concert's novelties he brought impeccable intonation and seamless phrasing of melodic lines.

The opening vocal setting, "The Hudson Side," was described in the program sheet as having been "sung by Miss Julia W. Pomeroy in the romantic opera The Miser's Well, produced in New York in the early 1840s." The text, by Edward Fitzball, was set to music by G. Herbert Rodwell, both Englishmen. In New Grove II , Nicholas Temperely writes that Rodwell's works "enjoyed a good deal of popularity in their day, but scarcely outlived him, and to modern taste they have only a faint appeal." The stanzas were repeated three times like a Handelian opera aria but without either interesting ornamentation or vocal fireworks. It served to warm up Jensen's voice.

More interesting were six nature poems by Emily Dickinson, three set by Ernst Bacon (1898-1990) and three, by John Duke (1899-1984). The Ernst Bacon Society maintains a large website that describes the Chicago-born composer's music as having been "influenced by the19th century classical tradition of Schubert and Brahms" while reflecting "the strength and vitality of his American roots." He is best known for his songs, "which show unusual sensitivity to the color and inflection of words and a masterly use of syncopation to give the impression of natural speech." "Is there such a thing as day?" featured a simple accompaniment and showed Jensen's high notes firmly in place. The piano's widely-spaced chords were a metaphor for the lazy subject of "The grass so little has to do." "My river runs to thee" brought us closer to the concert's theme.

Maryland native John Duke (1899-1984) was one of America's foremost composers of art song. After graduating from Peabody Conservatory (1915-18), he continued his studies with Schnabel and Boulanger in Europe (1929-30) before settling down as a teacher at Smith College (1923-67). In New Grove II , Ruth C. Friedberg writes that "his most important contribution was in the field of song, in which his style returned to a pianistically expansive neo-Romanticism after experiments in the 1930s with a linear, modal language." According to an unsigned article, Bacon "believed that in a good song the words became assimilated by the music." His song "New feet within my garden go" has a lovely, almost Brahmsian preamble, and later the piano's trills echo the singer's line about "A Troubadour upon the Elm." The river theme was suggested by "Have you got a brook in your heart?," in which a flowing piano rhythm recalled Schubert's millstream. Arpeggios abound in the witty "I taste a liquor never brewed," in which a flower's nectar is compared to liquor.

The most challenging and rewarding songs were by the current master of American art song, Ned Rorem. The Indiana-born composer was profoundly influenced when, at the age of 10, his piano teacher introduced him to the music of Debussy and Ravel. In an ASCAP online interview, Rorem proclaims "all aesthetics in the universe are divided between French and German.... I fall roundly into the French category...; French means continuity and transparency and say what you have to say, then shut up." In notes for the San Francisco Symphony online, Thomas May recalls that the composer has called song "the reincarnation of a poem that was destroyed in order to live again in music."

Jensen's selection from Rorem began with "The Lordly Hudson," which the Music Library Association voted "...the best published song of (1948)." It features an elaborate and interesting piano score, and the song ends with sustained high notes. Cellist Kramer joined his colleagues for the composer's setting of seven "Last Songs of Wallace Stevens." Extended, complex, and demanding cello solos preceded the vocal sections. These Kramer tossed off with exact intonation and agile articulation. Some of the music fleetingly reminded me of Messiaen. Jensen's masterful projection of every word of the texts was breathtaking. These vital blends of poetry and music will repay many hearings.

Kramer was in outstanding form is his two selections, Arthur Foote's (1853-1937) Sonata, for cello and piano, and "Six Studies in English Folksong," by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Foote was an important member of the "Boston Six"; according to Wilma Reid Cipolla, in New Grove II , "his style, firmly placed in the Romantic tradition, is characterized by lyric melodies, expressive phrasing, and clear formal structure." From the composer's papers, cellist Douglas Moore edited and performed the world premiere of the Cello Sonata in 1976. A wide array of cello technique, used expressively and combined with winning, sweeping melodies, make this a worthy addition to the repertoire. A contrast to wild American nature was provided by the "well-trimmed hedges" of Vaughan Williams' pastoral music. With wonderful control of his bow, Kramer made his cello truly sing.

By intention, since these are informal concerts, the program had no notes and included only a list of the selections and performers' biographies. The inclusion of sheets with all the song texts was most welcome.