The old-fashioned, conventional recital – you know, the kind that aspiring instrumentalists and singers are expected to do as part of their rite of passage from advanced student to young pro – well, as we have all been dreading all of these years, that kind of performance format entered rigor mortis a long time ago.
Back in the days of Sol Hurok’s Concert Association, the lovers of concert music in communities big and small around the country were able to hear rising and established singers and pianists and violinists and string quartets in their local auditorium, often for a very modest admission price.
During one season in Los Angeles I caught George London, Sherrill Milnes, Tito Schipa, Teresa Berganza and William Warfield in solo recitals. Years later, in college, I heard Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Herman Prey, Gerard Souzay, Hughes Cuenod, Jenny Tourel…
But those were the good old days.
What about now? Where are the enterprising impresarios (to use an old fashioned word) to revitalize the recital of art songs?
A daring young man, Samuel Martin by name, has just begun something called the Cincinnati Song Initiative.
CSI has programed two more concerts between now and April of next year, and if today’s one is any indication of what Samuel Martin and his fellow artists can achieve, we must celebrate the arrival of a winning enterprise on the Cincinnati musical scene.
The concert, just right in length and variety, included the familiar – Charles Ives and Stephen Foster, aptly described by the fine tenor Jason Weisinger as the grandfather and the great-grandfather of American art song.
But there were discoveries too: some Ned Rorem we had never heard before, a dramatic cycle by Libby Larsen, Try Me, Good King, sensitively sung by soprano Alexandra Schoeny. There also was Mixed Connections, a collection of vignettes with texts cleverly culled from Facebook postings nicely set to music by David Sisco, and delivered with theatrical flair by Weisinger.
In both the initial grouping of Rorem and Ives songs in which Soprano Alexandra Schoeny and Weisinger effectively alternated and, later, in a Libby Larsen cycle, pianist Marie France Lefebvre faultlessly supported the singers with her keenly attentive accompanying.
Soprano Shareese Arnold was accompanied at the piano by the excellent Matthew Umphreys, who also supported to perfection Jason Weisinger in the David Sisco group.
Shareese Arnold sang a group of songs written by American black composers: William Grant Still, Cedric Adderley, Valerie Capers and Undine Smith Moore. Her voice is a superb instrument which she handles and colors in a multitude of ways, placing it at the service of both music and text, never better than in her delivery of Watch and Pray, a harrowing depiction of a slave mother in dialogue with her little daughter, from whom she is about to be separated. What could be in lesser hands an overwrought moment was turned by Ms. Arnold into a scene of gripping tragic gravity.
Samuel Martin secured the intimate downstairs space of the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery. He then invited several excellent musicians to embrace his program choices for the initial event, and avoiding the word “recital”, he aptly titled it Americana a cultural tapestry, a title as welcoming and unpretentious as the entire event.
At the end of the concert Martin reluctantly and much too modestly joined his fellow artists for a group bow. He must take another one – a solo bow now, as we look forward to his continuing the weaving of the tapestry he has so lovingly begun.
Rafael de Acha