Art-song? The concept didn’t immediately blow me away as a child growing up in the same house with an opera singer, craving the full-out commitment of opera. The pleasures on record were sometimes esoteric and fleeting. I think I grew up with a skepticism for art-song that’s analogous to the skepticism some have for abstract art. Recalling those who snidely say “you only paint that way because you can’t paint the other way”, similarly, I wondered if art-song was for those whose voices weren’t big enough for opera. Of course I lost that arrogance when I discovered the limitations of my own voice, developing a hearty respect for what one can do expressively without a big voice, let alone the limitations of those who do have big voices. It’s especially ironic given that the COC performs in a hall where small voices can be heard, that nowadays recordings make it almost impossible to tell who is really in possession of a big voice: in other words, maybe aside from Wagner, size doesn’t matter. And now at a time when opera’s viability is seriously being questioned (this NY Times piece is just the latest), there’s ample reason to consider this inexpensive alternative, as some companies have been doing. Whether we’re speaking of opera companies using art-song as the basis for their theatricals – thinking for instance of Against the Grain’s inventive staging of Harawi with Die Schone Mullerin aka Death & Desire —or coming at it from the other direction, as CASP did in some of their programs this year in adding theatrical elements such as dance to a recital, it’s hard to ignore this low-cost approach to musical theatre text creation. It’s as though CASP, the curators and champions of art song, get the last la-la-la-laugh.
And whither CASP? At this point as a natural end to the season, they had another noon-hour concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, not the first time they’ve enjoyed this venue, but for the first time in closing a season of recitals.
Steven Philcox (piano), who is co-artistic director with Lance Wiliford (tenor), was one of several participants today:
- Maeve Palmer, soprano & David Eliakis, piano, gave us Alice Ho’s 2007 Three Songs from the Tang Dynasty followed by John Beckwith’s 1947 Five Lyrics of the Tang Dynasty
- Victoria Marshall, mezzo-soprano, and Mélisande Sinsoulier, piano performed Sylvia Rickard’s 1991 When You Hear Me Singing
- Philcox and Ambur Braid repeated one of the season’s highlights, namely Erik Ross’s The Living Spectacle, heard in November of last year
Let me ask you a question I love posing to friends and students. When you listen to opera (or see opera), is it the opera or the singer? Are you there because of a star you’re hoping to hear and/or see, or is it the opera that drew you? The question resurfaced in my head, watching today’s CASP concert, because of course the draw for me wasn’t the music but a particular artist, one of the young stars the COC can proudly show off as a graduate of their Ensemble, namely Ambur Braid, ergo the headline above. No it’s not really Braid OR CASP, so much as Braid AND CASP, although I’m thinking of this in terms of why people are there. I was there for both I suppose. And while I had my head into the notes to follow the text for the first two singers – looking at the words and marvelling at the ways the composers chose to set the texts—I took off my glasses, put down my notes and simply watched Braid sing.
One of the fascinating subtexts of art-song that I implied already, above, is that some of these songs are mere hors d’oeuvres, little snacks that barely get a voice warmed up, barely get you excited, before they’re over. Not so with Ross’s settings of the Baudelaire poems translated into English by Roy Campbell, three full courses this time. While there are some softer lyrical passages, a few times Braid soared above the treble clef. I am reminded of another fundamental question that comes up from time to time, that I might avoid by simply speaking of two different approaches to Violetta, namely the serene ease of Joan Sutherland, vs the daring vocalism of a Maria Callas. For some music we want it to seem easy, while for certain rep it’s an additional layer if the singer injects drama into the singing itself. While Braid sings these songs comfortably, she didn’t take an easy path –for instance to enjoy the friendly acoustic—but went full out, not holding back as she ascended each and every time. She held nothing back. I think Philcox would agree with Braid, that the CASP commission to Ross was a great idea, that the curation and cultivation of art song rep needs compositions that push the envelope, challenging singers and pianists alike.
There was lots more to the concert of course. I was fascinated by the two different composers coming at roughly similar text (if it’s fair to compare the Tang Dynasty poems set by Alice Ho and John Beckwith). Whereas the English-Canadian employed a pentatonic palette verging on cliché while perhaps dodging outright cultural appropriation in his piano and vocal writing (perhaps on my mind after Adams’ Scheherazade 2 last night) , yet he was very economical, getting through five little poems very quickly, and everyone seemed to like these songs, especially the last one. Ho chose three wonderful texts of such depth, I hope I can be forgiven if I think they were already music (to misquote Mallarmé), but there were beautiful moments nonetheless. Maeve Palmer has a lovely sound and a confident manner that likely will serve her well. I want to revisit the Rickard songs from aboriginal texts sung by Victoria Marshall, whose lovely mezzo voice was almost too rich for these texts. No I am not saying a person with less voice is better suited, but rather that the lusciousness of the voice is almost a distraction sometimes, and surely not a bad thing. She sounded beautiful, and I got completely lost in pure sensation a few times.