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On February 3, two Meredith alumnae, Kimberly Bentley, soprano, and Susan Hoskins, piano, came home for a guest recital in Carswell Hall that had very varied and interesting repertoire on the whole well executed, showing off their fine talents. Bentley was also formerly with the National Opera Company and was heard here in the role of Amanda Etheridge in the world premiere of J. Mark Scearce's opera Kitty Hawk in April 2000.
The intermission-less program opened with "Hear Ye, Israel" from Mendelssohn's Elijah. Bentley gave a rousing, energetic, vibrant reading using a score, but her diction was slightly slurred at times, which compromised the total effect. She followed with five of Berg's "Sieben Frühe Lieder," lush late-Romantic music in which - curiously, since it is not her native language - her diction was generally very good and clear. Bentley had the bearing and comportment of a diva that suited this music well. These songs and the remainder of the offerings were performed from memory.
Next came the curiosity of the evening, Debussy's "Nuits Blanches," an unpublished two-song cycle set to the composer's own texts. Hoskins came across a reference to these and took it upon herself to obtain a photographic reproduction of the manuscript from the Bibliothèque Nationale and permission for performance from the conservator of the Debussy estate. It was unclear whether this was actually the world premiere performance, but the artists will be presenting them elsewhere. The texts (as with the Berg, provided only in translation, alas) are prose poems about a man's disappointment over deceit by a loved one, which ends in forgiveness upon his feeling her touch. They are set to music typical of Debussy that seemed particularly appropriate for them, as well they ought to, but composers aren't always good at writing their own texts, any more than opera composers, at writing their own libretti. Unfortunately, Bentley's French diction left a lot to be desired for my (some might say too discerning and critical) ears, thus lessening my pleasure in hearing this new discovery.
A group of seven of Samuel Barber's ten "Hermit Songs" followed. Diction was much better here as was the interpretive aspect of the performance conveyed through gestures and facial expressions. Although Leontyne Price premièred and recorded them with the composer at the piano, I have always found the texts strange coming from the mouth of a woman (as I did with the Debussy, I might add) and prefer to hear these songs performed by a male vocalist. Sanford Sylvan gave an impressive reading of them at the NCMA a few years ago. The program concluded with "Natural Selection," a song cycle by Jake Heggie, an American composer born in 1961 and living in San Francisco whose first opera, Dead Man Walking, premièred there in 2000 starring Susan Graham as Sister Préjean and recently released on CD, created quite a positive impression.
These, too, are prose poems, by Gini Savage, but in a female voice this time, and they are bold and saucy in a disjointed, stream-of consciousness style. Bentley's excellent interpretation suited them just fine. They have not yet been recorded, although other Heggie songs are available on a wonderful CD entitled The Faces of Love, devoted exclusively to him, and a few others appear on Jennifer Larmore's My Native Land.
An interesting feature of this recital that caught my immediate attention was the position of the piano. It was set at a diagonal, with the tail turned inwards toward the right rear corner of the stage (stage left), so that Hoskins had her back to the audience. Not only did it clearly make it easier for the two artists to communicate with each other, but it also took the edge off of the percussiveness and the brightness of the piano as the sound was projected into the hall from behind the singer's back rather than over her head. This was a definite plus in Carswell; let's do it more often. Hoskins is being self-effacing in taking this radical position, but she need not be a shrinking violet; she is a most able accompanist. She also deftly and noiselessly turned her own pages, unlike another pianist whom I reviewed here last fall.
There were, alas, no program notes about the music or its composers. In the case of the Heggie cycle and the poet whose poems it set, neither familiar to the average listener, the lack was sorely felt. Another area with room for improvement: the texts/translations were poorly laid out so that page turns were necessary in the midst of songs on two occasions, and original language texts should be included. I also wondered why the remaining two songs of the Berg set and three of the Barber cycle were not performed so as to present the complete sets; it certainly would not have made the recital overly long. In summary, this was a very good and enjoyable recital, but a few things could have been improved, some of them quite easily, to turn it into an excellent one.