On Tuesday night April 16th, renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw sang the opening and closing numbers of a graduate recital of new songs otherwise performed by students of the Bard College, Annandale Vocal Arts Program, a program artistic director Upshaw conceived. The recital featured a number of Boston premieres of new songs written by composition students of the Bard College and Conservatory as well as works by faculty and alumni.
Upshaw always has been an artist, deeply committed to communicating clearly through sensitivity to music, emotion, and these qualities were clearly manifest in the seasoned choice of repertoire that bookended the recital, but they also brilliantly shone forth in her students who were the centerpiece of this production, providing ample evidence that she is successfully passing on her sensibilities.
With her colleague Kayo Iwama on piano, Upshaw began with a playful and beautiful setting by Laura Schwendinger of the e.e. cummings poem, “in just-spring,” followed by Juliana Hall’s three songs to the poetry of Emily Bronte and Elizabeth Bishop from a seven-song set called Night Dances, written for the soprano. These were familiar works for Upshaw and she executed them comfortably, playfully pinching her “e” in the opening song’s “wee.” Hall was present to tell the audience a little about her set, which she imagined as warm, dark colors interspersed with light. All the poems spoke of night, the first song in a melodic 3/4, “This shall be thy lullaby…”, while “Sleep, Mourner, Sleep” was more expressly dramatic, howling, and ghostlike. The final “Sonnet” began a cappella with meandering chromaticism, floating upward into an illumined straight tone.
Daniela O. DeMatos is a collaborative pianist and candidate for a master of music in composition who set her own stunningly mystical poem for four women’s voices unaccompanied. It received a truly memorable Boston premiere from sopranos Marie Marquis and Devony Smith and mezzos Kimberly Feltkamp and Abigail Levis; the composer could not have asked for a more beautifully blended ensemble. The result was hauntingly ethereal yet richly lyrical, but as it continued, it felt as if piece might have benefited from some variation through instrumental enhancement.
One of the Boston premieres on the program was from Antonin Fajt, who created a simple yet poignant setting of a poem by Dag Hammarskjöld called “Drift in the Wind.” It demonstrated considerable sensitivity to both singer and text, set as a duet by soprano Xiaobo Su and baritone Logan Walsh with Szilvia Miko on piano, the accompaniment especially beautiful, starting out in upper register, minor third and plucked strings, accompanied by midrange arpeggios in the lefthand. Walsh’s spoken delivery of the poem was exemplary, but showed more vocal expression than his singing, with some unsupported cutoffs occurring for both singers. But they listened to each other well, blended well, and exhibited sensitivity to the song’s fine lyricism.
Casey Hale’s Boston premiere setting, entitled “True Lover’s Knot”, based on the folksong “Barbry Ellen,” exuberantly closed the first half. Written for two tenors, two sopranos, and piano, its powerful accompaniment and sharp vocal ornamentation have a bold Americana feel, with antiphonal play between tenor and soprano groupings. It is also strophic, its sonority almost in the style of shape note singing, but it contained none of the haunting sorrowfulness of the original folksong.
Tenor Barrett Radziun sang “Morning’s Innocent” (May Swenson), by Aaron Jay Kernis. It is a ballad almost in the style of musical theater, and Radziun’s performance was effortless in rendering sensitivity and pathos. In a marvelous segue, soprano Kameryn Lueng performed James Primosch’s “Cinder” (Susan Stewart) with jazzlike smoldering warmth in a style suggestive of pop singing. Both artists were truly moving, sensitively accompanied by pianist Szilvia Miko, who clearly loved the music and the words they expressed so beautifully.
The Boston premiere of “Una Linea” (“To Hold,”by Li-Young Lee) from Andrés Martínez de Velasco was a moving poem set by a young composer with deep feeling, but the setting, perhaps intended to provide contrapuntal textures, unfortunately seemed to muddle both text and intentions. Since it was written as an expression of gratitude after the composer’s recovery from a serious illness, the listener could want nothing more than to root for his success, but the composition’s multiple layers seemed to muddle the deep grace in the poem.
Tamsin Elliott’s Sveitaar, sveimen var Kvieoinen: “Koorwei, Koorwei,” and three songs from The Book of Ingaaric Songs for Two Faces, translated as Beautiful Fish, As Punishment, and Song of Wedding stood above the others for its extremely artful yet daring ingenuity. Don’t bother asking about the language or where one can find “The Book of Ingaaric Songs.” It’s all an elaborate hoax—one word sounding vaguely Icelandic, the next vaguely Greek, in an accent vaguely Russian in a style vaguely essence-of-Bulgarian-Women’s-Chorus. She pulled it off admirably, with madeup accent, introducing the audience to the texts with her own convincingly dramatic delivery that was as deeply sensual as the poems Pierre Louys pulled Paris’s leg with when he wrote the Chansons de Bilitis and tossed them off as an ancient Greek find from the Island of Lesbos. This composer seems to possess similar whimsy, and with keen talent for flow of composition and form that is both boldly innovative and compelling. Mezzo-sopranos Sara Lamesh and Abigail Levis presented them masterfully and remained fully committed to their dramatic flair.
Dawn Upshaw returned with pianist Kayo Iwama to close the recital with faculty composer George Tsontakis’s “Love’s Philosophy” (Percy Shelley) and three songs from John Harbison’s Simple Daylight (Michael Fried).
During her introduction, Upshaw remarked that owing to the events at the Boston Marathon the previous day, there was discussion as to whether they should go through with the performance or cancel, but they decided that musicians should provide healing through music. It was clear from this concert that Upshaw has devoted her life to a love affair with song and is instilling that devotion in her students.