We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Alan Darling, Scott Murphree, Justine Aronson, and Jesse Blumberg

What's a writer to do when some of her favorite singers are performing a type of music she does not appreciate? What this writer does is to go, to listen, and to hope to find a composer whose music in the unappreciated genre might strike her fancy, thereby expanding her horizons.  And that was exactly what happened when we heard songs by Alexander Liebermann.

Last night at the Sheen Center, Mirror Visions Ensemble celebrated their 25th Anniversary and their quartet of fine singers, comprising soprano Vira Slywotzky, tenor Scott Murphree, baritone Jesse Blumberg, and baritone Mischa Bouvier, were joined by guest artist Justine Aronson, whom we hardly ever get to hear. With a group of singers like this, we were sure to hear some music we'd like in this mostly modern program.  And we did!

The opening song "Invitation to Love" was  Aaron Grad's highly original setting of a text by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of emancipated slaves who was the first Afro-American poet to achieve international recognition and distinction. He wrote over a century ago and lived only 33 years. The text used by Mr. Grad rhymed and scanned, providing fertile material for Mr. Grad's unusual writing in which soprano, tenor, and baritone were given tuneful melodies, interesting harmonies, and overlapping voices. So few composers know how to choose text and how to make good use of the English language. We can honestly say that we were delighted by this work which won MVE's Young Composers Competition.

What MVE is best known for is presenting a text that was set by more than one composer. We can think of so many such works that inspired composers of the 19th c. (our favorite period). We always love Brahm's peaceful "Feldeinsamkeit" and thought Mr. Blumberg captured the tranquil mood of Hermann Allmers' text, especially the melismatic singing on the word "umwoben" (woven). We never knew that Charles Ives set the same text and it was also quite lovely, as sung by Mr. Murphree.

Both Paul Hindemith and Benjamin Britten set Thomas Moore's text  "How Sweet the Answer Echo Makes".  Ms. Slywotzky sang the Britten beautifully and Mr. Bouvier did justice to the Hindemith.

The other mirror image on the program comprised two settings of a Paul Verlaine text--"L'echelonnement des haies". Mr. Bouvier sang the setting by Debussy and Ms. Slywotzky performed the setting by Poldowska, a female composer whose style seemed very much influenced by that of Debussy. Poldowska was the pen name of a musically gifted woman who led an entirely too colorful life to be described here. Margaret Kampmeier's piano and both singers conveyed the gentle lilting music. Clearly, Verlaine's evocative text dictated the music.

And that is what we find unenjoyable about contemporary setting of English poetry.  The poetry sounds more like prose! We miss the lilt.  We miss the melody.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to a commission given to Tom Cipullo entitled A Visit with Emily. This was an elaborate work in many parts, mostly consisting of settings of Emily Dickinson's letters to T. W. Higginson and his letters about Ms. Dickinson to his wife. No doubt this is an "important" work but our pleasure came more from the singers than the songs. 

Ms. Aronson has the most exciting timbre in her voice and a vibrato that strikes our ears just right. The opening song quotes Ms. Dickinson's description of her definition of poetry as that which makes her whole body cold and makes her feel as if the top of her head were taken off.  We cannot say that we have ever felt that way from poetry! But music we like will give us goosebumps!

One of the more interesting parts of this cycle was Mr. Blumberg, Mr. Murphree, and Ms. Aronson singing three different poems about fame simultaneously in "Quodlibet I". Another part that we liked had the three of them singing a "Catch" which was brief and pithy--"Women talk: men are silent: that is why I dread women." The humor came from the fact that the men had all the lines with Ms. Aronson making wry faces. The English language lends itself well to humor!

"Passacaglia" was a pithy duet with elaborate variations poking fun at the hypocrisy of people saying they will come again some time.  (Kind of like "Why don't we have lunch some time?" in modern parlance.)

We also found something to appreciate in #17 and #18 when Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Murphree sang simultaneous arias about Wonder, Suspense, and Forgetting.

(c) meche kroop

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