Tonight in a Soundstreams concert titled “Adrianne Pieczonka: Beyond the Aria” we saw and heard two great operatic artists go beyond their usual boundaries, using their instruments in unexpected ways. Soprano Pieczonka was joined by mezzo-soprano Kristina Szabó in a program whose oldest items date from the 1960s, in keeping with Soundstreams mandate to present contemporary music.
Earlier at today’s Array concert at the RBA I wondered whether virtuosity is over or just out of fashion, hearing gentle sounds in minimalist compositions requiring none of the usual vocal fireworks one expects in an opera house. I had wondered if Soundstreams were merely seeking Pieczonka –the world-famous singer –as a draw to attract a bigger audience. While it’s true that the concert at Koerner Hall was packed, this was a unique concert. We heard singers go in several non-operatic directions, but with the expressive capabilities of the voice always front and centre.
The program was framed (beginning and ending) by works composed by American George Crumb. We began with five excerpts from American Songbook, Crumb’s bold paraphrases of traditional materials mixed and reframed in flamboyant arrangements employing both singers either in solos or duets. “Dry Bones” uses the well-known song complete with percussion to make you shiver in their grotesquely comical resemblance to skeletons. And while the Saints may indeed go marching in, it’s in an abrasive 5/4. The ensemble was extremely tight, led by conductor Leslie Dala.
The light-hearted beginning was followed by a contrasting world premiere, namely Canadian composer Analia Llugdar’s Romance de la luna, luna. Soundstreams sought to commission a work that would underscore the Crumb piece that concludes the program—Ancient Voices of Children—which Pieczonka performed with Soundstreams a quarter of a century ago, when she was just beginning her career. Both works utilized texts by Federico Garcia Lorca and have similar instrumentation. Szabó faced a different set of challenges, in a work that is more recognizably Hispanic in its rhythms and harmonic idiom, which shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Llugdar was born in Argentina. The work is a tour de force, a showpiece, and perhaps so full of flamboyant challenges as to at times obscure some of the simplest elements in the text. But Szabó and Dala were more than equal to its challenges.
The last item before intermission was a bit of a departure, and probably the moment when the audience were most attentive, namely three of Berio’s arrangements of Beatles songs. While there is an element of surprise in the framing of “Michelle” among unexpected chord progressions and a moody opening, the other two songs (“Yesterday” and “Ticket to Ride”) generated a bit of hilarity in their ironic packaging, particularly the former in its near-exact quoting of Bach’s “Air on the G String”. There was the usual discomfort in trying to orient ourselves vis a vis the genre, calibrating the choice to sing in pop or classical style. Pieczonka can’t turn off her legato, which does betray her slightly in creating a smoother phrase than is idiomatic for pop. But the combination of the new arrangements with that stunning voice still brought down the house,.
After the interval Pieczonka and boy soprano Andrew Lowe gave us Ancient Voices of Children. We began with a singer projecting her sound into the depths of a grand piano, the strings resonating with her many different approaches to singing. She emerged to join with Soundstreams for the wonderful variety of sonorities Crumb calls up in support, from toy pianos to harmonicas to bells and percussion.
With the contrasting approaches to singing I remarked upon (the gentle softness this afternoon, the flamboyance from both women tonight) it’s worth noting that a voice teacher was singled out by both programs, namely Mary Morrison. This afternoon she was given a shout-out by Rick Sacks of Array, and acknowledged by Pieczonka both in the program tonight and in our interview. The program mentions the vocal techniques Morrison showed her. In the interview Pieczonka said
I performed Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children nearly 30 years ago (with the group before it became Soundstreams). I was still a student at U of T at the time. I’m sure Mary Morrison, with whom I then studied, was somehow instrumental in this engagement.
It’s intriguing that Morrison is so influential among singers of such divergent approaches, both among singers who employ a soft minimalist approach, and also one of our biggest stars of the operatic stage.