In UNC’s Hill Hall on January 12 at 3 p.m., soprano Terry Rhodes, mezzo-soprano Ellen Williams, and collaborative pianist Benton Hess, with help from cellist Stephen Reis in one work, gave the first run-through of a recital of vocal music by Libby Larsen, performed without intermission, which will ultimately be recorded by Albany Records. Larsen, born in 1950 and residing in Minnesota, is among the most prolific composers of her generation in all genres, and vocal works make up a constant and significant portion of her oeuvre.

The program included four complete song cycles, three duets from operas, and a solo excerpt from a cantata-like work spanning the years 1989-2002. Rhodes opened with the 1997 Chanting to Paradise, a set of four songs on poems of Emily Dickinson. Williams joined them next for the “Color Duet” from the 2002 Dreaming Blue, for which Larsen wrote her own libretto, basing the entire composition on writings of elementary school children in a school near her residence about their favorite color. The artists dramatized the work, using props and appropriate movements. This was followed by a duet scene from the 1993 opera Mrs. Dalloway, based on the Virginia Woolf novel and composed on a commission from the Cleveland Lyric Opera with libretto by Bonnie Grice, likewise convincingly dramatized. This scene concludes with a setting of Shelley’s “Music, when soft voices die,” another setting of which figures in one of the song cycles. Next, an excerpt from the 1996 Eleanor Roosevelt , a work described by Hess as a sort of cantata and involving reminiscences of the title character in the section heard, was presented dramatically by Williams, with help from her daughter Caitlin in portions of the text that were spoken.

Rhodes returned to present the 1998 Margaret Songs: Three Songs from Willa Cather . Its first, “Bright Rails,” featured an imitation on the piano in both sound and rhythm of the clacking of the iron wheels on the tracks. The central song, “So Little There,” was adapted by the composer from the short story “Eric Hermannson’s Soul,” also the source of her 1998 opera Eric Hermannson , with libretto by Chas Rader-Shiever, from which a duet ensued. Williams remained on stage and was joined by cellist Reis to offer the 1994 song cycle Beloved, Thou Hast Brought Me Many Flowers: A Collection of Love Songs (by different poets), of which she had presented selections earlier at Meredith during the composer’s residence there in March 2002. (See our archives for coverage of that event.) Its fourth song, “White World,” by Hilda Doolittle, uses only the white keys of the piano, and its fifth is the aforementioned Shelley poem. This is a nicely constructed cycle, with accompaniment by both instruments in four of the six songs, cello alone in the second and piano alone in the fourth. Rhodes replaced Williams to conclude the program with the 1989 cycle Songs From Letters: Calamity Jane to her daughter Janey, 1880-1902 , portions of which were included in her “Women of the Wild West” show (also covered in these pages in March 2002), and which was presented by Judith Bruno in a November 2002 recital at St. Mary’s School. (See our archives for my review.)

The artists were all in top form. Rhodes sang her high notes with ease and her voice filled the hall, which was, alas, not nearly as full as it should have been. Williams’ diction has never been better; often previously a weak spot, it was on a par with Rhodes’. She was on sabbatical last semester, expressly to work on her diction and performance techniques with the Met’s English-language coach, and it paid off in spades. Except for Williams’ Beloved. cycle, all works were sung from memory. Hess’ accompaniment was as usual superb. Reis’ contribution, although small, was crucial and right on the mark. Throughout the afternoon, oral comments were offered, primarily by Hess, with Williams giving the background for the Mrs Dalloway excerpt and Rhodes for the Calamity Jane letters. They were a nice touch in replacement of written program notes for this performance that was appropriately heavy on the dramatic in presentation style. The CD will be most welcome, but reading the booklet will not be a satisfactory replacement for the artists’ remarks, and the physical aspect of the live performance will also be missed. Complete texts were provided along with artist bios and the program itself in the printed handout that accompanied this clearly well planned and carefully organized and prepared performance. If the musicians are able to present it again locally, readers who like vocal music should be certain not to miss it.