Today’s free noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was a rarefied affair, offering us a glimpse of some intimate relationships. Yes a concert is a public event in front of hundreds of people, but that’s only after several stages. Its conception begins in the solitude of a composer’s study. Even before that the text emerges from a poet’s fertile pen. But that’s just a superficial way to see it.
For example, with the three Derek Holman song cycles heard today at the RBA, the relationships are much more complex. All three were written for tenor Colin Ainsworth. Stephen Ralls likely has a place in the delivery room, as Ainsworth’s mentor and as one of the key collaborative pianists in this country supporting and nurturing the composition of songs. We heard three cycles.
The Death of Orpheus (2005) with which the program began is what Ralls called a “scena” (I hope I spell that right, as “scene” might also be pronounced that way in some languages) in three parts. I think it’s a significant distinction from a simple song cycle, because there’s a larger drama unfolding, namely the story of Orpheus’s trip to the underworld, his meeting with Eurydice. The work arose as part of a festival celebrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses, employing poetry coming to the story somewhat obliquely:
- “Invocation to Pluto and Proserpine” (an Ovid text in a 1567 translation by Arthur Golding) as Orpheus seeks to gain his wife’s release/return
- Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII, as a kind of hymn of praise to Eurydice upon their reunion
- “The Elysian Fields” (a wonderful Ovidian text again translated by Golding)
That this was –for me—the least successful (or perhaps more accurately, the least magnificent) of the three cycles should not necessarily be held against the participants. It may be that our ears need to warm up, to learn how to hear what Holman (as well as Ainsworth & Ralls) are doing. Even so, Ainsworth brought the work to a poignant climax in recounting the reunion of the separated lovers, now as a pair of ghosts, the words “embracing arms” enacted so fervently tears came.
The second cycle, A Lasting Spring (2004), was occasioned by the passing of Nicholas Goldschmidt, the founder of the Guelph Spring Festival. As the earliest of the three, I suspect it was also the occasion whereby Holman, Ralls & Ainsworth found one another, to begin their collaborations. Holman’s music this time is perhaps more conventional, more immediately recognizable in the correlation between the rhetorical direction of the text and the music, such that both the “Lament“ and the sad “Orpheus with his lute” are elegiac meditations. The third song (which I believe was added a bit later to make the cycle), setting Herrick’s “To Music”, is a sort of paean to the healing energies of music even as the text surrenders to mortality. In these songs as in the first cycle Ralls played impeccably, rock solid in support of Ainsworth’s occasional moments of exploration, that always seemed to know exactly where the music was going.
The last item on the program was the one I’d been waiting for. Back in March Ainsworth sang selections from Holman’s A Play of Passion as part of the Canadian Art Song Project concert at the RBA. This was a chance to hear the entire work.
In context with the other two I couldn’t help speculating on the evolving relationships, particularly Holman’s understanding of Ainsworth’s voice & of vocal writing in general. If we were to –reductively—attempt to describe the three song cycles purely in terms of their dynamic range, I experienced the first two (in other words, while I may be mis-reading, my response to the pieces as if to suggest a dynamic range on the page) as if the music is between mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte. Not only does A Play of Passion (the third cycle) go at least from pianissimo to fortissimo (if not actually ppp to fff), Ainsworth is also pushed much further in his use of his instrument. Two of the songs take him to the very top of a tenor’s range, full voiced as well as more delicately. How did this happen? Did Ainsworth say “challenge me, Derek”..? Or did Holman say “Colin, I’m going to challenge you this time”..? Or perhaps Ralls also had a hand in it. However it unfolded –and I hope someone documents the dynamics between the collaborators—this third cycle is completely unlike the other two, pushing Ainsworth to the limit. His sounds suggest he’s becoming a very different sort of singer. He has become so much more than the Opera Atelier stalwart, whether in Mozart or Lully. As I anticipate seeing him sing Bardolpho again this Thursday in the COC Falstaff, one watches and listens to the living breathing evolution of a voice, both a creative growth and an athletic one as well. While Holman isn’t Wagner, I find myself thinking about what Ainsworth might undertake in future, as his voice acquires greater heft & power with each passing year.
In all three cycles, Ainsworth is as assured as Ralls, which is to say, authoritative.