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Chamber Music, Vocal Music Review Print

"The American Voice in Chamber Music" at Meredith

February 12, 2002 - Raleigh, NC:

When one of the singers had to cancel due to illness for the February 12 five-part faculty and guest recital in Meredith's Carswell Hall, the substituted work could not include a vocal part. Yet, curiously, the two instruments, the clarinet and the cello, seemed in many ways to be singing to each other. So while the program's title ("The American Voice in Chamber Music") was no longer technically accurate, it was in spirit. Almost all of the works were by living composers, many of them women, befitting the recital's place in the "Year of Music" series at the college's "Center for Women in the Arts".

This opening substitution was "Born of the Same Wild Mother," written in 1993 by Rick Sowash, a 50-year-old freelance composer and ASCAP member with about 160 works to his credit (mostly chamber, choral and vocal) who earns his living as a humorist. A dozen of his works have been recorded and about twice that number published. He gives away photocopies of his compositions and makes them available for downloading on the Internet at http://www.sowash.com/. This six-movement piece, inspired by a quotation on the title page of The Cabin Down the Glen by Odell Shepard, gave the listener the feel of being in the North Woods. "I think of the piece as a conversation between two ancient trees in a late fall or winter landscape. And when you think about it, a clarinet and a cello were once trees," he writes in the very good program notes that accompanied the program (although they required a lot of paper shuffling due to the way they were formatted and assembled in separate batches for the works and the artists). The movements were of varying lengths, but each seemed to have a character all its own in spite of the overall sameness--an echo effect here, a bouncing back and forth of the melody there, a quiet, slow pace in one, a lively pace in the closing movement. Clarinetist Jim Williams and cellist Virginia Hudson gave it a really fine reading that was pleasant to hear. The two instruments matched and blended well, neither overpowering the other, to create very interesting and attractive textures. Who would have thought of making such a pairing and that it would work so well?

Speaking of pairs, next came two ballads, "What have they done to the rain?" and "Copper Kettle," the former composed in the Cold War era, born of a concern over nuclear war and radioactivity, and the latter a traditional one from West Texas dealing with the making of moonshine. These were sung by Lisbeth Carter, self-accompanied on the guitar and also accompanied by James Fogle at the piano. These works seemed, at first glance, out of place on a classical chamber music recital, but these are the very kinds of songs whose melodies many composers melded into their compositions. Carter's voice suited the material well, and it continued in a positive way the offbeat variety established by the unusual instrumentation of the first work.

Next came A Time to Blossom by Maxine Meira Warshauer, a composer (b.1949) residing in Columbia, SC, whose piano trio will be presented next winter in Wilmington, and hopefully in the Triangle as well, by Barbara McKenzie. This three-song cycle sets poems by three women poets: "A Song to Mary" by Hildegard von Bingen in an English translation by Gabriele Uhlein, "Have you got a brook" by Emily Dickinson, and "Caesaria" by Hanna Senesh. Doing the honors were soprano Sally Thomas, flutist Pamela Nelson, cellist Hudson and pianist Fogle. The musical lines were inspired by and imitated word groups in the poems, the "verdant sprout" in the Hildegard suggesting spring and birth, the "brook" of the Dickinson the flow of bubbling water, and, in the Senesh, the grand forces of nature that the "prayer of the heart" hopes will never end. The last poem, sung first in English and then in Hebrew, contained the most varied texture due to the flute's remaining silent for significant portions of the song while taking the lead in the interlude. The rendering was good but might have been better if the singer had performed from memory; doing so would have been enabled her to express the material better and communicate more with the audience.

Yet another unusual and offbeat combination followed this with Stephanie Dillard DeJong, soprano, accompanied by Dennis DeJong on the trumpet and Donna Jolly at the piano, in three songs from Eric Ewazen's To Cast a Shadow , setting poems by Katherine Gekker: Nos. 1, "Stopped by the stream," 3, "Two bees fighting," and 6, "Everyone says it snowed last night." The subject of the cycle is love--its power and mystery and the emptiness of its loss. The trumpet serves as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting upon, highlighting, and punctuating the text. It was, unfortunately, a bit too emphatic on occasion, overpowering the voice. This reviewer also wondered, as he always does, why the complete cycle was not presented; it might have seemed a bit less disjointed and more coherent. How much longer would the doubling of the length of this set have made the whole evening? Some other compositions by this composer (b.1954) appeared on a recital at the NCMA by the Mountain Chamber Players a couple of years ago. His works are often quite original in their instrumentation and melodic line, and very enjoyable.

Soprano Risa Poniros, accompanied by Hudson and Fogle, closed the evening's proceedings with two songs by Jake Heggie, the youngest (at 40) of the composers represented. They were: "My true love hath my heart," poem by Sir Philip Sydney, a stand-alone work whose modern music suits the text remarkably well; and "What lips my lips have kissed," from the cycle of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Before the Storm, which is often performed as a stand-alone. Indeed, Poniros performed it, with different accompanists, in this hall in a recital reviewed by this critic last October. She again gave a fine rendering, and the text towards the end of this song brought the listener full circle to the opening number with the line, "Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree."

It is unfortunate that the hall was only about a third full for this lovely presentation of diverse new works and fine display of local talent. The artists clearly enjoyed offering them to the audience, and this reviewer enjoyed hearing the offerings.