Over the course of some decades of a singing career that has encompassed a singularly broad repertory, the mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato, one of Boston’s favorite musicians, has performed frequently with Gunther Schuller, whose 85th birthday took place last November 22. It was therefore appropriate on two different levels that she presented her April 5 recital in Jordan Hall as a tribute to the fruitful longevity of another of Boston’s adornments, the composer, conductor, educator, author, publisher, and teacher to a substantial percentage of musicians in this community.
On the obvious level, she sang a set of Schuller’s own songs, composed at the age of nineteen (and now appropriately called Six Early Songs). But with the exception of a handful of other songs, that represents the bulk of his output in this medium. As a result, Fortunato paid tribute to another significant aspect of Schuller’s career — his active support of the work of many other contemporary composers — by doing the same herself. Since the Schuller set calls for flute, cello, and piano, she picked music by four other living composers, each born in a different decade, that required one or more of those three instruments, and called the program “Vocal Chamber Music of Our Time.” The other composers, chronologically by year of birth were John Harbison (1938), John Greer (1954), Andrew List (1966) and Mohammed Fairouz (1985). All of the composers were present.
Before the recital began, poet and critic Lloyd Schwartz led a discussion with all five composers plus one more NEC composer, John Heiss, posing questions about choices of poetry for song composition and of prosody — to what extent the metrical nature of the text might affect the musical setting.
For the concert, D’Anna Fortunato was accompanied in the various songs by different combinations of flute (Renée Krimsier), cello (Rhonda Rider), and piano (John Greer). Seven other instrumentalists joined her later for the final set. The songs covered a wide range of styles from traditional folksong melody to more extended and challenging songs in vocal range (contralto to soprano), harmonic complexity, and rhythmic difficulty, in all of which Fortunato sustained all the demands of the works—except for a folk song setting that required the singer to whistle the refrain. In this one instance, the audience was invited to contribute the necessary part, which a number of listeners did with enthusiasm.
Mohammed Fairouz chose three poems by Lloyd Schwartz for No Orpheus and set them for contralto and cello. The performers create a musical dialogue that reflects the character of at least two of the poems. The first, “He Tells His Mother What He’s Working On,” is an explicit conversation between mother and poet about his current poem, about memories and the progress of a work. In “No Orpheus” the dialogue is implicit, with the poet’s thoughts not openly expressed, while the speaking voice is evidently that of a woman who desires, like Eurydice, to be led out of hell, but this hell is the progressive loss of memory; the poet, as the title indicates, is “no Orpheus” who might be able overcome the deficit. The final song, “Her Waltz,” is entirely in the voice of the woman who is still trying to recapture the feeling of dancing despite age and infirmity.
John Greer, who provided all the piano accompaniments, also offered a set of three Canadian folk songs in effective arrangements. “Rattle on the Stovepipe,” a song of courting, called for piano and cello accompaniment. The most familiar of the tunes (because it was also arranged by Britten), “She’s Like the Swallow,” a song of deep disappointment in love, is accompanied by the flute. “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” is a comic turn about a virago whom even the devil has to let go because she so torments the imps in hell; here is where the audience supplied the whistling refrain, appropriate because in some cultures, a whistle was traditionally thought to summon the devil.
Gunther Schuller’s Six Early Songs are settings of poems originally written in Chinese by Li Tai Pe but set in the German translation of a 19th-century writer who called himself Klabund. The poems are typically filled with concrete images, mostly of the natural world, which create a mood — usually implicit — in the mind of the poet and reader. These songs are lushly evocative, with a sensuous piano accompaniment that ripples with color as it suggests a waterfall (“Die Kaiserin”), the lolling gentleness of a rocking boat (“Im Boot”) , and so on. In describing these early songs, Schuller referred to the presence of “a lot of Ravel in there,” adding, “When I steal, I steal from the best.” This early cycle gives us a glimpse at one of the starting points for a distinguished career.
Andrew List’s On the Wing: A Song Cycle in Celebration of Birds, based on poems by Mary Pinard (and one brief interpolation of a haiku by Basho), received its first performance with both composer and poet present. The first poem invokes the springtime welcome of the “aerialists” that cross thresholds and come back to the world in which the poet-observer lives. The next three songs, all somewhat shorter, offer different verbal effects to evoke sparrows, seagull, and crow, respectively, with apposite vocal and pianistic effects to capture the images. The cycle closes with a lament, a kind of litany, of birds that are disappearing or have become extinct, a dying away after the brilliant vivacity of the central songs.
John Harbison’s Book of Hours and Seasons sets four Goethe poems, texts that have a kind of orientalizing character in that each one draws upon a concrete image to draw forth an emotional response that grows increasingly philosophical as the cycle unfolds. Two songs are ranged on either side of a central interlude that offers a brief depiction of the four seasons starting with winter and ending with fall. Though some of these images are expressed in some sort of musical word-painting (such as that of Time’s flow rushing by at the end of the second song), the cycle sets the German text with an attention to the details of prosody that points Goethe’s words clearly and expressively.
For the final set, the youngest composer on the program, Mohammed Fairouz, was again represented, this time with Three Shakespeare Songs for mezzo with seven instruments: violin (James Buswell), double bass (James Orleans), clarinet (Steven Jackson), bassoon (Richard Svoboda), trumpet (Steven Emery), trombone (John Faieta), and harp (Ann Hobson Pilot), conducted here by Yoon Jae Lee. The first and third movements set song texts from the Shakespeare plays (“Full fathom five” from The Tempest and “Orpheus with his lute” from Henry VIII). The middle movement was a setting of Sonnet 66, a difficult text running through a list of all the dreary items in a dreary life that makes the poet long for “restful death.” Compared to the song texts, which offered shorter lines that are easier to turn into vocal lines with an expressive shape, the sonnet seemed rather monotonous on first hearing (though I was tickled at one instrumental touch: At a line describing “maidenly virtue rudely strumpeted,” the sound of the last word evidently suggested a special touch to the orchestration, for at that moment there was a bright lick for the trumpet). The songs on either side of this sonnet setting, though, captured the ear with their lilt.
A remarkable program, beautifully planned, well executed, and much appreciated.