Florestan and BMOP Join Forces to Celebrate American Vocal Repertoire

by Robert Myers

Somerville, MA, 25 September 2009.  This evening’s double concert in the Distler Performance Hall of Tufts’ Granoff Music Center began a 3-day festival involving a partnership between the Florestan Recital Project and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to highlight American vocal music.  The former’s presentation was the 1st of 3 concerts which together would span the entire vocal opus of Samuel Barber, aptly titled, “BarberFest,” while the latter highlights contemporary compositions for vocalist(s) and chamber orchestra.  Presented together under the heading “Voice of America,” these two artistic institutions served a charmingly varied program that elucidated the truly diverse nature of American vocal writing.

From his earliest years, Samuel Barber entertained a special love for singing, which manifests itself obviously in his vocal writing, but arguably appears throughout his orchestral compositions as well.  A truly American-trained composer, he distinguished himself at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at the age of 16 by being allowed a triple major in composition, piano, and voice.  His love of poetry greatly influenced his choice of texts throughout his life, and his vocal training and familiarity allowed him to craft the relationship between the text and music to give the performer a great deal of musical satisfaction and interpretive enjoyment.  

Although Samuel Barber’s music is far from unknown in modern vocal recital programs, the number of works in frequent performance is quite small from the perspective of his total output.  The 1st concert’s program opened with his Nuvoletta, a lilting piece comprised of snaking chromaticism alternating with lyricism in the higher tessitura.  Sarah Pelletier and Shiela Kibbe made a beautiful collaborative pair on this piece, Ms. Pelletier’s soprano having the ideal blend of presence and expression throughout her range.  Because the recital alternated singers between sets, each performance was fresh and contrasted nicely with those around it, a very effective programming technique.  Following was a set of songs performed by soprano Shadi Ebrahami, whose performances are imbued with such introspection and shading as to be excellent mediums for storytelling, such as in the 3rd song of her set, “Bessie Bobtail.”  After Ms. Ebrahami, tenor Joe Dan Harper performed 2 songs that showcased his extraordinarily nuanced tone with great emotional dynamic and emotional range.  These 3 singers took the audience through a delightful sampling of Barber’s works from his various compositional periods, often juxtaposing early and late compositions within sets.  Many of these works are rarely performed and the Florestan Recital Project does the vocal world a great service by bringing to light the playful and expressive range of this great composer.

Following the 1st installment of BarberFest was a series of contemporary vocal works presented by the BMOP under the baton of Artistic Director Gil Rose.  The 1st piece by Scott Wheeler was entitled The Gold Standard; it essentially proceeds as a conversational narrative between tenor and baritone about the nature of currency.  Gil Rose did a masterful job of coordinating the swells and lulls underneath the booming baritone of David Kravitz and the lyrical legato of tenor Charles Blandy.  The 2 singers were compelling and convincing, particularly in the quartal harmonies that decorated the piece toward its conclusion.  Immediately after was a pair of pieces titled Speech Made By Music and Put These In Your Pipe by John McDonald for flute, cello, and soprano (with piano in the latter).  Remarkably effective works from a sonic point of view, full of textures and colors by the accompanying instruments as well as leaping lines by the soprano, the ensemble was masterfully coordinated in executing them.  Carol Mastrodomenico offers a remarkably homogeneous tone that led the chamber group to great expressive extremes with the composer at the piano for the 2nd piece.  

Next came a masterwork by Ronald Perera for tenor and chamber orchestra entitled Crossing the Meridian.  This 5-movement piece uses a limited intervallic palette, but does not suffer in its capacity to convey detailed images and sonorities as a consequence.  The final work of the evening was Andy Vores’ Goback Goback for baritone and chamber orchestra inspired by the poetry of W.S. Graham, a 20th century Scottish poet.  The progression of the text through the movements acts as a story in which ghostly images and recollections trace the memory of the speaker from childhood into a retrospective look of an adult on the years of his life.  Employing leitmotivic chords and harmonic constructs, Vores’ work is wonderfully unified and texturally evocative.  David Kravitz performed the work with immense artistic integrity and commitment; indeed his voice often seemed to be amplified as it resonated so fully in the hall.  Together, these 2 programs were admirable additions to the Boston artistic calendar, and both organizations should receive encomium for their dedication and artistic ingenuity.