In “Vocal Chamber Music in Times of War,” noted mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato, brought the likes of Ravel and Debussy, Earl Kim and Benjamin Britten together with Reynaldo Hahn and Mohammed Fairouz for a Saturday evening of goodwill and struggle at Harvard-Epworth Methodist Church in Cambridge benefitting Music for Peace, Victor Rosenbaum, Music Director, in association with Massachusetts Peace Action.
The chance to hear the music of Earl Kim (1920-1998) live is about the same as winning Mass Cash or Lucky for Life. It was lucky for me that he began teaching at Harvard while I was a graduate student there, and lucky for me to hear his song cycle, Now and Then for the very first time. The five songs on poems of Chehkov, Beckett and Yeats, veering not a bit from his style, shone with meticulousness and natural gift. Flutist Linda Toote, Violist Michelle LaCourse, and harpist Anna Ellsworth elegantly shadowed Fortunato’s singing melodies often with the smallest of variations. On the meadow (Chekhov) opened with clashing sound ever so reserved to the words “all living things.” The second and fourth songs are exactly the same. Entitled “thither” there are only but two are three words per line, which Kim set for voice and harp and having them take a breath after each of the lines to dramatic effect. Fortunato, for some reason sought out a peaceful softness on “march then/again/a far cry” on her first iteration then turned to a sharp-edged loudness for the second.
A small interval of two notes murmuring incessantly on the harp throughout roundelay put the focus on the words “on all that strand/at end of day/steps sole sound/long sole sound.” (Beckett) There is startling poise in this brief song cycle. It must be heard again. It is that kind of piece that could easily be heard twice in the same evening.
In contrast, the Boston premiere of “Refugee Blues” by Mohammed Fairouz (born 1985) allowed the listener far too much satisfaction of “getting it.” The recitative portions and continuo-like piano accompaniment—it was at best that—posed in all too familiar tonal territory. Fairouz’s simplicity simply did not catch the import of the 1930 blues and popular meters Auden adopted for his poem beginning, “Say this city has ten million souls/Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes.”
Real ongoing struggles would come in not being able to understand the words of these master poets of the 20th century. D’Anna Fortunato’s outgoing vocalizations, expansive vibrato, and the near half-filled sanctuary combined to reduce comprehension. Even when she explained the connections of the pieces to the program’s theme of war and longed for peace, very few words could be heard.
For some reason, texts for Britten were not provided and only the English translation for the Debussy.
Toote, LaCourse, and Ellsworth would have you fall in love with “the music of the past” as we were told Venezuelan-born Paris Conservatory professor Hahn had described his own music—he abhorred the goings on of the modernists. The trio charmed and charmed again in this sometimes Scottish sounding Romanesque. This led to the question, why not more instrumental music to break into the heavily loaded vocal concert?
Fortunato’s lower mezzo-soprano tones advanced a French-ness that was alluring but all too fleeting. Her inflection on the indigenous scales in Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies Populaire Grecque lessened the Greek framing of these songs. Pianist Mana Tokuno drew Debussy out of Harvard-Epworth’s fine piano with water-colored harmonies measured by Impressionism’s rhythm.