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“No Choice but Love: Songs of the LGBTQ+ Community”

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A two-CD song recital that I set aside last year because it didn’t have program notes or the sung texts just surfaced in my pile. This time I noticed a QR code that gets me the program notes on my cellphone, and I finally figured out that they’re also on the record company’s website. I read them—they’re by the much-published writer on music Roger Pines—and was immediately intrigued.

Eric Ferring, a marvelous young tenor who has been doing lyric and coloratura roles at the Met recently (e.g., Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Pong in Puccini’s Turandot) made his debut recording in this album with pianist Madeline Slettedahl.

No Choice but Love: Songs of the LGBTQ+ Community is an imaginative compilation of songs by gay and lesbian composers (seven men, two women) plus a “Mexican American transgender composer”, Mari Esabel Valverde. The more recent songs often address the challenges of being different (or being thought “different”) in mainstream society, and these are the ones that held my attention most.

Madeline Lettedahl (Simon Pauly photo)

The album opens with the renowned song composer Ben Moore’s deeply engaging four-song Love Remained, based on highly personal texts by different authors, including Harvey Milk, about being gay in a family, in American politics, and so on. The album closes with a separate song by Moore using an evocative poem (which Ferring sent him) by the Jamaican-American tenor Terrence Chin-Loy.

In between come items by composers from a few generations back—Ethel Smyth, Falla, Poulenc, Britten—and more recent ones by Jennifer Higdon (lines from Walt Whitman’s famous “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”), Ricky Ian Gordon (to texts by Langston Hughes), and Willie Alexander III (to verses by James Agee that Samuel Barber and Morten Lauridsen have also set).

Gordon’s two songs, from his 1993 cycle Genius Child, are absolute keepers, and I expect we’ll be hearing them in other recitals. Both set Hughes’s poems captivatingly, the second to a dance-like tune, the first to music that (intentionally, I suspect) recalls to the gorgeous “Adonai ro-i” tune in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

On the Road (1913) by Ethel Smyth is a confident march, hinting at important work that needs to be done in society via group efforts for freedom from “slavery” (which could mean, Pines supposes plausibly, the fight for women’s rights). From Britten we get his oft-recorded Canticle I, on a stirring early seventeenth-century text by Francis Quarles that derives ultimately from the Song of Songs and evokes the love of the poet (or the poem’s persona) for “him”—which, in context, could be God (i.e., “Him”)—or a human male, or both. This bold piece was first performed in 1947 by Peter Pears (Britten’s partner in life and in artistic pursuits) with the composer at the piano. It spans a wide range of emotions and styles, including bitonal excursions near the beginning, and, in the middle, a motoric passage that resembles some in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (first performed four years later).

From Falla, we get two eerily placid yet intense songs in Spanish. From Valverde, two songs in Danish to poems by Tove Ditlevsen. The first is particularly entrancing, much like a Schumann song but with subtly updated harmonic touches.

Poulenc’s cycle of nine brief songs, Tel jour, telle nuit, ends CD 1, appropriately, because this is the work, composed of course for Poulenc’s friend and main vocal interpreter, baritone Pierre Bernac, that resulted after some of the squabbling and advice portrayed (or imagined) in Jake Heggie’s humorous and touching work, which directly precedes it here: Friendly Persuasions. Heggie’s four songs evoke imagined but plausibly characteristic interactions between the composer Poulenc and four of his friends and colleagues, including harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and, in the second song, Bernac.

Eric Ferring (Gillian Riesen photo)

All in all, No Choice but Love is one of the most imaginative debut recitals I have ever encountered. Ferring sings with total control at all volumes and at both ends of his capacious range. Oh, what a joy to hear a singer who has not frayed his voice by singing heavy roles! Madeline Slettedahl (who has been on the staff of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and other major performing organizations) offers a continuously supportive collaboration at the piano.

The release does not provide the words for the songs, though most of them, at least, could easily have been put online, where the program notes already are. Fortunately, Ferring’s pronunciation is so clear that I needed them rarely, mainly in the French, Spanish, and Danish songs. I was able to find the Paul Éluard texts for the Poulenc cycle online, with translations. The Falla texts are at lieder.net (one of them with a translation). The ones by Ditlevsen are under copyright, but perhaps her estate, if asked, would have permitted them to be included. My point is: listeners (and purchasers!) should not have to hunt like this.

Nobody would buy a 2-CD set just for the Poulenc or Britten: major items that have each been recorded many times by equally gifted artists. But the whole program works well, and, most importantly, brings us important new repertory and makes a clear statement about the values of human uniqueness, connection, and empathy, as well as about the power of the imagination (literary, musical, and—thanks to the tenor and pianist—performative).

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, The Boston Musical Intelligencer, and The Arts Fuse. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). A much briefer version of the present review first appeared as a “Short Fuse” in The Arts Fuse.

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