Marlissa Hudson, esteemed Duke alumna and fantastic soprano, collaborated with pianist David Heid to create an enjoyable afternoon of storytelling through the songs of Southern composers. The concert, presented in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, was bookended by two larger works, beginning with William Grant Still‘s Songs of Separation and ending with the one-woman operatic scena At the Statue of Venus by Jake Heggie. In between were additional songs by both male and female composers written in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Songs of Separation is a collection featuring texts by well-known African American poets. Although Still is best known for his operas, orchestral compositions, and conducting, these songs are also quite beautiful, containing glimmers of jazz and blues music as well. Hudson’s performance of these songs was no less beautiful, and her interpretation of each text was quite compelling. Some, like “Poéme,” contain open piano chords that support a texture of calm and longing, while “Parted” is a sassy and bold statement sung strongly in first person. The last song of the set, “A Black Pierrot,” a setting of the poem by Langston Hughes, is darker and more mysterious. Here, Hudson’s voice and interpretation shifted from hushed solitude to defiance, especially at the spectacular last note.

Next, Hudson and Heid explored nature imagery with two songs from Robert Ward‘s Sacred Songs for Pantheists. “Intoxication” contains a series of energetic descriptions of nature that intoxicate the speaker – Hudson conveyed this wild, joyful abandon very convincingly. “Heaven-haven,” in contrast, is more a lyrical description of nature, with the sung melody and piano working together to create imagery of vast landscapes.

Dan Locklair‘s Two Soprano Songs are more experimental and abstract – “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” features juxtaposition between harp-like arpeggios and low drum-like chords in the piano. The song begins mysteriously, with hushed tones that grow climactically to the last word, chillingly sung on “death”. “Brooks” is an immediate contrast, with stream-like piano patterns that supported Hudson’s lilting, dotted rhythms. The imagery created here was colorful, and Hudson’s expression added an air of contentment to the song.

The composer of the next two songs, Scott Tilley, was actually present in the audience – his wife, Susan Dunn, premiered these songs and was Hudson’s teacher at Duke. “Night Hush” is a serene lullaby, with high treble patterns in the piano suggesting the shimmering light of stars. The melodic and operatic vocal line was sung serenely throughout. “Dweller in My Dreams” was one of the most emotionally convincing songs on the program. Hudson sang the unpredictable melodic lines with passion, as if singing to the dweller in her dreams.

Continuing the theme of dreams with Florence Price‘s “Hold Fast to Dreams,” Hudson and Heid changed the mood to be encouraging and hopeful, with notes soaring in her high soprano range. Price’s “Night” is dream-like and almost like a nocturne. Two songs by Undine Moore showcased Hudson’s high coloratura notes. “How I Adore Thee” triumphantly contrasts urgent descriptions of nature with soaring phrases of the title line, and “Come Down Angels” explores strong influences of the spiritual genre.

The second half of this concert was devoted to Jake Heggie’s At the Statue of Venus, with a libretto by Terrence McNally; it is the inner monologue of a woman waiting to meet a blind date at a statue of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. It is both humorous and introspective, and Hudson communicated these contrasting moods and characterized the woman’s personality very well. The piece begins with a definite stream of consciousness as she laments her choice of wearing black slacks to the date, simultaneously imagining what her date might look like. Part of what made Hudson’s performance so convincing was that her acting made it seem like the text was spontaneously sprouting from her own imagination. Several false alarms of seeing potential dates pass by increased tension, and the texture turned tempestuous for a moment. At this point, Hudson nearly walked offstage to convey her frustration and self-consciousness. Soon, however, the mood shifted to nostalgia, as the woman described scenes from her own happy childhood, considering the many forms of love she had already experienced. Here, Hudson appeared hopeful while caught in this reverie. And then, suddenly, this introspective aria ended when her name was called (by pianist Heid) – “Rose?” – and the opera ended with joy.

The encore was Moses Hogan‘s arrangement of “Give Me Jesus.” This simple spiritual was performed breathtakingly – not just because of Hudson’s vocal prowess, but also due to her overwhelming sincerity. Even though the song’s melody repeats with the different verses, she conveyed each verse with a different goal and interpretation in mind. It was very satisfying to end the concert with a song so obviously loved by the performer.

This program will be repeated at the Weymouth Center in Southern Pines on October 4. For details, click here.