Wild Songs: Songs by Steve Heitzeg and Lori Laitman. Polly Butler Cornelius, soprano, Victoria Fischer Faw, piano, Heather Barringer and Patti Cudd, percussion. Steve Heitzeg (b.1959) Wild Songs, Three Graces for Hildur, “Loveblessing,” and “Is Everyone Else Alright?” Lori Laitman (b.1955) Four Emily Dickinson Songs. Innova 825 ©2012 TT=35:02 ($15.00)

Soprano Polly Butler Cornelius, a member of the faculty of Elon University, has made a specialty of premiering contemporary American songs written by living composers. She has performed internationally and is well known throughout NC for her opera, oratorio, and concert performances with many regional ensembles and companies as well as for song recitals. On this CD, all but Heitzeg’s Wild Songs are ably accompanied by her Elon colleague, pianist Victoria Fischer Faw. The very unique cycle of three songs is accompanied by Heather Barringer and Patti Cudd on an extraordinary plethora of percussion, ranging from Beluga whale jaw bones, junk metal, and temple blocks to marimbas – along with recorded pigmy chimp vocalizations.

Steve Heitzeg is an Emmy Award winning composer whose orchestral, choral, and chamber works celebrate the natural world. Listening to Heitzeg’s Wild Songs seems to be the musical equivalent of looking at art works made from “found” objects. The unlikely prose texts are to be sung surrounded by a tapestry of eerie evocations of nature. “The Last Roundup” is set to a fragment by Rachel Carson, and “Rattle the Cage/Bend the Bars,” set to a brief sentence by Jane Goodall, utilizes drones, vocal repetition as well as vocalise-like episodes to weave a protest song against human destruction of the Great Apes. “Wild Mercy” is a setting of the poem of the same name by Terry Tempest Williams. It reads like a movement press release but the singing lifts it.

A composer of two operas, an oratorio, choral works, and over 200 songs, Lori Laitman is one of America’s most prolific and widely-performed composers of vocal music. Her Four Dickinson Songs are worthy tributes to the recluse of Amherst. In her CD program note, soprano Cornelius writes, “Laitman chose to set four Dickinson poems because they allow for a dramatic, musical flow.” Emily Dickinson’s concise and unpretentious style fits the composer’s economical scoring, which reminds me a little of Copland or Virgil Thomson without being in any way imitative of either.

Dickinson’s poetry serves as more conventional texts for Three Graces for Hildur by Steve Heitzeg. “It’s all I have to bring today,” “Ample make this bed,” and “The Earth has many keys” were commissioned by Jack and Linda Hoeschler in honor of Linda’s mother, Hildur Wederquist Lovas. Heitzeg’s remaining two songs use more unconventional sources. “Loveblessing,” a setting of 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, was commissioned by Jim and Barbara Willis, while “Is Everybody Else Alright?” marries a line from Aeschylus with the last words spoken by Robert F. Kennedy.

The breadth of technique and timbre demanded by these scores make a fine showcase for the agility and quality of Cornelius’ voice. Her intonation is excellent, and her voice is evenly supported across its range. It would be hard to imagine the vocal imitation of natural sounds in Heitzeg’s Wild Songs being done better. The recorded sound is superb throughout. It’s a shame that additional works of comparable quality could not have been found  to round out the CD.