in: Reviews

October 27, 2009

Historical Bits with Dignity and Humor

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Who ever in the world would dream of singing “I Love You Truly,” by Carrie Jacobs Bond, as an encore to a recital at the Longy School of Music? Visiting Artist teacher Thomas Meglioranza, that’s who! That song was absolutely fitting, not only in context, but also as a final example of this baritone’s high degree of expressivity and remarkable voice. melioraThe concert was one in Longy’s “Unique Voices” series on Saturday, October 24. His frequently collaborating artist, Reiko Uchida, was the equally sensitive pianist who supported him warmly, and introduced every phrase as a gift. The program promised songs from around the time of World War I and delivered an unusual selection (as is Meglioranza’s wont) from composers as diverse as Charles Ives, Kurt Weill, Francis Poulenc, Claude Debussy, Rudolf Sieczynski, Anton Webern, Erich Korngold, and Carrie Jacobs Bond, plus a selection of popular songs of that time by Ivor Novello (“Keep the Home Fires Burning”), Irving Berlin (“Stay Down There Where You Belong”), Haydn Wood (“Roses of Picardy”), R. P. Weston (“Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers”), and Silvio Hein (“Some Little Bug is Going to Find You Someday”). These were announced from the stage; all songs were introduced with light touches of historical bits, demonstrating not only Meglioranza’s research chops but also his quick ability to relate to an audience with humor, yet with dignity, signifying that this was a serious endeavor, not entertainment per se.

The music of Ives framed much of the program. Meglioranza is “a natural” for Ives’s songs, meaning not only that his vocal range is wide enough to perform them easily without strain, but also that he fully understands the songs and their underlying complexities of sound and text, as well as historical context, and presents them with authority. Strictly speaking, only one of the five songs (“Tom Sails Away,” with text by Ives himself) belongs to the War years, and that one was performed with special poignancy; the others, (“In the Alley” [1896], “The Side Show” [1896, rev. 1921], “The Children’s Hour” [1912-13] and “The Greatest Man” [1921]) range from Ives’s student to mature years, but never mind — we were only too glad to hear them sung so beautifully.

Kurt Weill’s “Reiterlied,” “Im Volkston,” and “Das schöne Kind” (1914-16), to texts by various poets, were here presented with affection for the teenage composer’s early musical essays. These were followed by Poulenc’s Le bestiaire (1918-19) to texts by Apollinaire, a cycle of six charming songs by a very different youth, sung in clear contrast to Weill’s. Next came Debussy’s last song, “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison” (1915), written to his own text in angry protest against the German invasion, and was so performed. Meglioranza continued to alternate moods with Rudolf Sieczynski’s “Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume” (1913), a sentimental piece of nostalgia upon which the Austrian composer’s sole compositional fame rests. Growing solemn again, Meglioranza presented three early songs (1906 – 1908) by Webern, two from op. 3 to texts by Stefan George, and one from an earlier group, “Am Ufer” to a text by Richard Dehmel, all in Webern’s “aphoristic” style. Meglioranza sang these dissonant jewels with a clear straight voice, all the better to hear the underlying voice-leading in the piano—true chamber music. Next came the young Korngold’s waltz-song, “Die Gansleber im Hause Duschnitz” (1919), a silly song about goose livers explained in an amusing introductory anecdote. Meglioranza’s diction, in any language, is superlative, as has often been noted.

The music of Carrie Jacobs Bond sung after these works made the popular songs that followed seem all the more serious. Her “A Perfect Day” (1910) is said to have sold over eight million copies, and her hilarious “Half Minute Songs” (1910-11) are truly aphoristic. By then Meglioranza had us in his hands to enjoy his sense of fun. But the last line of that encore (“ . . . , truly dear”) absolutely soared with a gently ringing beauty and effortless quality of voice rarely heard anywhere. We fairly floated through the door of Pickman Hall out into the rain.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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