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Recital Review Print

An Extraordinary Recital

March 24, 2002 - Chapel Hill, NC:

I use this word in both its literal and figurative senses in referring to the program "Women's Voices of the Old American West," presented by soprano Terry Rhodes and pianist Jane Hawkins in UNC-CH's Hanes Art Center Auditorium on the evening of March 24. This was not your standard art song recital; it was a multimedia event featuring spotlighting, props and costumes with projections of slides overhead, readings and narrations provided by both musicians (Hawkins even sang one number), and a six-page printed program with some texts, quotes, lists of names of people and texts mentioned and quoted, notes and artist bios. In a sense, it was like watching a Ken Burns music documentary live, so informative and entertaining was the experience. It was on the whole extremely well presented and executed.

The presentation drew a wealth of material from an eclectic variety of sources including: historic records, newspaper articles, archival photographs, literature, diaries, letters, speeches, Native-American songs, prayers and chants, traditional ballads, popular songs, hymns, musical comedies, art songs and opera arias. This was all woven together into a roughly 75-minute, intermission-less eleven-part narrative with musical elements, subtitled A Musical/Dramatic Montage .On stage, there was a quilt over the tail of the piano, a coat tree with costumes and hats, a table with a kerosene lamp and a chair for making entries in diaries, and two folding screens: one that allowed Rhodes to change on stage and play other instruments (drum, harmonica, and recorder) unseen, and the other to hide a technician from the view of the audience.

The agenda was to recount the significant roles played by all manner of women-White, Black, Native-American, Asian, Hispanic-and their importance in the settlement of the American West, and in its life, politics, and culture, both highbrow and low, essentially down to current times, but focusing primarily on the period from the Civil War to World War I. The eleven sections were entitled: Introduction: Beneath These Alien Stars-Prayers from the Past; Eureka!; Vote for Women!; Working Women; My Foot in the Stirrup; I, Too, Sing America: I Am the Darker Sister; The Little Old Shanty On My Claim: Women Homesteaders; Wakonda gikon...Here needy I stand...; "Jeleab"-Self-Reliance; La Campesina; and Conclusion: Prayers for our Future.

The narration was packed with facts and information, most of it little known to the average listener. For example, Wyoming, scene a few years ago of the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard, was, in 1869, the setting for a women's suffrage effort, with a state law granting women the right to vote passed that year, the first in the entire world! Blacks who went West after the Civil War were called "Exodusters." A popular song that Rhodes sang, "A Perfect Day," composed in California in 1909 by Carrie Jacobs-Bond, sold over 8 million copies of the sheet music and over 5 million copies of recordings. The narrative linking the musical numbers was peppered with this kind of data throughout. The quotations by and about women gave a sense of what life was like for them and what they thought and did. Two quotations-one, from Willa Cather: "The Old West...the old time...The old wind singing through the red, red grass a thousand miles..."; and the other, "We must keep singing lest we forget who we are"-recurred as leitmotivs throughout the evening.

Material was arranged thematically rather than chronologically. While some of the material used was, in fact, anachronistic, it contributed nonetheless to the effectiveness of the whole. Individual numbers were far too numerous to list here. To give an idea of their diversity, they included: two songs by Libby Larsen; one each by African-American composers Florence Price and Margaret Bonds, using texts by Langston Hughes; two by Charles Wakefield Cadman, based on tribal melodies collected by Alice Fletcher and using poems by Nellie Richmond Eberhart; an aria from Puccini's Girl of the Golden West; one from Robert Ward's Lady Kate; songs from Lerner and Lowe's Paint your Wagon and Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (with appropriate props brandished); two Chinese folk songs; and a song by Charles Tomlinson Griffes using an ancient Chinese text. Material within each section flowed smoothly from one item to the next, although the transitions from section to section seemed less natural.

The performance itself, while outstanding, was not entirely seamless and flawless and could use a bit more polishing as the artists tour the program. Rhodes sang all numbers from memory and read her narrative portions well, but Hawkins stumbled a number of times in reading hers. Rhodes needs to practice the recorder a bit more. By the end of the evening, when she reached the final song, she was a bit out of breath, so she will need to learn to conserve her energies more as she progresses through the earlier material. One slide was missing, and the coordination might have been a bit better, and the correlation, a bit clearer, on some other occasions. The printed program needs a bit of fine tuning, also: for example, two numbers were listed in reverse order from the performance, and the numbers of the final two sections were inverted. The second, repeatedly used quote should be included somewhere with its author credited, as should the texts of more of the songs. But these are picky details in view of the overwhelming amount of research and effort that clearly went into this truly fine program. It was presented previously in Greenville and will be presented elsewhere in the state later this season. It deserves widespread exposure. Catch it when you have the chance!