Northwest Art Song, Susan Graham reviews: women in and out of love

The Ensemble and Friends of Chamber Music present two vocal concerts featuring old and new songs about the female experience of love


Of all the ways composers scoop up gulps of whatever universal river of music flows through the human soul and shape them into works, my favorite is probably the art song. At its best, an art song is a miraculous thing, a happy ménage à trois of compelling soundscape, absorbing lyrics – and not least, beautiful singing, something that depends on the composer and all the other musicians in on the game as well as the singer. (This does not in any way exclude the work of people who prefer to think of themselves as songwriters. A hit doesn’t need much art, and art doesn’t need to be a hit, but at wonderful times they do indeed come in the same package.)

In recent years, Portland has attracted a welcome stream of excellent singers, who fill the ranks of, and even direct, organizations devoted to art song as well as choral music. Two singers who recently commanded my delighted attention, soprano Arwen Myers and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, happen to be the artistic directors of Northwest Art Song. They also perform regularly with top local vocal groups such as The Ensemble of Oregon. For the opening concert of The Ensemble’s season, “Nevertheless, She Persisted,” which I caught two weeks ago last Sunday afternoon at downtown Portland’s First Christian Church (repeated from the previous evening in Eugene), they put together an absorbing show exploring many kinds of love, exclusively from a woman’s point of view: all music and lyrics were written and performed entirely by women. Not only that, the music was utterly of our time, mostly written in the last two years, the oldest written at the cusp of the millennium.

Northwest Art Song performed women’s music in Eugene and Portland. Photo: Cory Niedfeldt.

Naturally with any collection of new work, there were misses as well as hits, but they opened with a stunner, Hyacinth Curl by Kati Agócs, who visited Portland last summer when her piano trio Queen of Hearts was performed at Chamber Music Northwest. Agócs put the lyrics together from Sufi devotional poetry (possibly written around 1830) by early 19th century Iranian noblewoman and mystic Bibi Hayati. As with claims that the Song of Solomon expresses religious devotion, you could have fooled me. Myers’s and Thoreson’s sinuous lines wrapped around each other, aptly expressing the lyrics’ barely concealed eroticism, with only an occasional handbell for punctuation. At the most charged moments, the women’s duet trailed off into silence, and after almost unbearable anticipation, the next stroke of the handbell was perfectly placed (that is, pitched) for maximum (aural) pleasure.

There was probably no way Abbie Betinis’s The Clan of the Lichens, on the equally mystical but almost asexual nature-loving texts of Opal Whiteley, could keep up this kind of interest, but the five-song set showed off Myers’s abilities to great advantage, and at their best were engaging and effective. “All Things Live” was one standout, with Myers ripping out fast, digitally precise scales and other vocal fireworks, popping off a couple of high D’s as if they were the easiest thing in the world. Even more attractive was the off-kilter, halting waltz “A Tale for Children and Taller Ones,” which dusted the cleverest lyrics and most colorful piano writing of the set with another dash of delicious musical acrobatics from Myers.

Piano artistry, both in composition and performance, then took center stage as Susan McDaniel, who performed tirelessly through the entire concert, played Stacy Garrop’s solo Keyboard of the Winds, inspired by wild cloud formations swirling around the eponymous rock formation in Rocky Mountain National Park. The work is atmospheric, but demands precision in fast fingerwork, big chords, and in a contrasting section dominated by open fifths piled on top of each other, sensitive pedaling. McDaniel ably surmounted all these challenges, and brought such drama to the work that I was willing to forgive Garrop for channeling 19th century composer and seminal piano virtuoso Franz Liszt in a couple of anachronistic passages. If only someone had remembered to put the piano lid on full stick, it could have been a showstopper.

Sara Teasdale’s succinct yet aching lyrics were not well served, however, by formulaic piano figuration and harmonic meandering in Juliana Hall’s Music Like a Curve of Gold, “Barter” being particularly guilty of these sins and unfortunately the last song of the concert. They also marred the song that gave its title to the Betinis set, such that not even Myers’ consummate lyricism could bring much life to it. Even a middling songwriter knows a song needs a hook, but sometimes even good composers forget. Just look through the classic art songs of the 19th and 20th centuries. Far more often than not, there’s a distinctive accompaniment pattern, or harmonic progression, or other repeated musical gesture that sets the scene or focuses on a telling physical or psychological detail. Possibly the greatest challenge in writing an art song is to integrate this gesture into a unified work that is compelling as pure music.

The Ensemble also presented Myers, Thoreson and McDaniel at a house concert in Portland. Photo: Cory Niedfeldt.

Libby Larsen is one of America’s foremost composers, and in her set of five sharply etched character songs, Love after 1950, she seems to make light of this and other challenges. It seemed these songs were made for Thoreson’s chocolate silk voice and normally vivacious stage presence. It was impossible to pick a favorite out of the deep bluesy “Boy’s Lips,” the sultry say-one-thing-but-mean-the-opposite “Blond Men,” the hard-as-nails boogie-woogie of “Big Sister Says, 1967,” the bittersweet tango spun out of a shampoo bottle, “The Empty Song,” or the mysterious and ultimately ecstatic “I Make My Magic,” which the composer finishes off with a reference to Molly Bloom’s final yeses in Ulysses. They were every one a delight, even though the piano was a bit muted and Thoreson uncharacteristically attached to her score. (Her voice betrayed no hint she was fighting off a cold.) I hope that before long I get to hear her and McDaniel perform them again, with more oomph out of the piano and Thoreson at the peak of health, having lived with these five lively females long enough to internalize them as she has with so many others.

Portrait in Tones

Larsen, in public commentary on these songs, has also sent a razz back in time to Robert Schumann, the composer of the 1840 song cycle Woman’s Love and Life (Frauenliebe und Leben), referring to her set as “Frau, Love ‘em and Leave ‘em.” Standards are very different today of course, but in 1840, Schumann’s eight songs nominally presenting a woman’s perspective of an idealized relationship with a man, from her love at first sight, through his reciprocation, their marriage, her pregnancy, to his death, passed for feminist even though the music and the lyrics (1830 poems by Adelbert von Chamisso) were written by men.

Coincidentally, in my probable favorite of all the concerts I caught last season, internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham featured this very cycle. (She has even been called “America’s favorite mezzo”, although curiously, in Britain first apparently.) Presented April 9 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall as part of Friends of Chamber Music’s invaluable Vocal Arts Series, the show, brilliantly curated by Graham and musicologist Susan Youens, explored the many facets of love, romantic and beyond. Graham and Youens acknowledged the problematic aspects of Schumann’s work, but chose to present it as “a portrait in tones of a loving, tender, generous-hearted creature anyone would be proud to love and to be loved by.” And indeed, Schumann in 1840 was in determined league with his fiancée Clara Wieck to marry against her father’s wishes, so he had at least a couple of unselfish reasons to be attracted to lyrics idealizing love from a woman’s perspective.

Graham’s show was divided into eight sets, each anchored by one song in turn from the cycle. The early sets began with Schumann’s music; the last sets ended with it. Each set was filled out with songs reflective of the same stage of love, for example: the Schumann song that gets closest to dealing with lovemaking – the protagonist, after various hints, tells her husband she is pregnant – was accompanied by two of the most erotic songs in the literature, Henri Duparc’s “Phidylé” and especially Claude Debussy’s “The Tresses” from Songs of Bilitis. Such careful curation was just one of the many features of Graham’s recital that made it the event of the season.

If not from the moment she walked on stage, in a flowery gown subdued by diva standards, flashing a warm smile; if not as she clued us in to the dramatic arc of her show with a few lively, well-chosen words; then surely as she sang the first hushed, lovestruck phrase of the opening Schumann song, “Since I saw him,” she became, if not America’s, then certainly the packed hall’s favorite mezzo. Thirty (!) songs by eighteen composers later, as she finished her second encore, “Hello Young Lovers” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, she seemed like she could go on for another thirty and never get tired.

Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau performed at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Photo: John Green.

Admittedly it’s half a year later, but this picky reviewer can not remember, nor did I make note of, a single lapse or complaint throughout. Whether singing the most introspective songs, such as the very first, or the most anguished, such as Enrique Granados’ “Oh cruel death!”, or the most joyous, such as Maurice Ravel’s “Everyone is happy! (Tout gai! from Five Greek Folk Songs),” or the most erotic such as the Debussy, or even the outright goofy (Francis Poulenc’s “The Baby Carafe”), Graham brought just the right voice and presentation, and Malcolm Martineau followed her every lead closely on piano.

You will find many recordings of the Duparc song on YouTube, but in none will you find the almost indecent blend of piano and voice that Martineau and Graham achieved. A few minutes later, after an edgy, thrashing climax in the Debussy, Martineau’s last few notes lingered in the heart like the last kiss of the evening. And speaking of deaths of all sizes, the pair unabashedly brought wrenching extremes to the Granados, matching the composer’s. Yet throughout, they returned unerringly to the intimate vicissitudes of Schumann’s female protagonist, capturing her every mood, channeling the feminine in all of us.

This season, the Friends’ Vocal Arts Series is again celebrating Schumann in April, with a recital featuring A Poet’s Love (Dichterliebe) sung by, plus a new American song cycle written especially for, tenor Lawrence Brownlee. If you can’t wait that long, check out New York Polyphony in December or the perennial Chanticleer concert in February. Also in December, The Ensemble will present a semi-staged version of Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, with Laura Beckel Thoreson as The Mother.  And whether reading all this has given you an art song jones or just sparked your interest, be sure to keep an eye out for Northwest Art Song’s next show.

Jeff Winslow is a pianist and composer, who, no surprise, has written a number of art songs himself. You can listen to one here, and decide for yourself if he knows what he’s talking about. 

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