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On the afternoon of March 16, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and NC Museum of Art showcased creative program building at its best, demonstrating meaningful relationships in the life of a sculptor who was internationally prominent at the turn of the 20th century. The result was a universally pleasing chamber music program of songs, some of which were not familiar, that were all pleasing because they fit the context of the memorial celebration honoring Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Revival of "Ah, When the Fight is Won" is not anticipated on the brink of war with Iraq, but the scholarship that uncovered it, in the Harvard collection, for use in this program, is to be admired. The song, written by Francis Boott (1813-1904) as a tribute to Shaw's (black) regiment in the Civil War, was complemented by references to the Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial that stands on Boston Common opposite the State House on Beacon Hill. The lyrics end "...could dare and die as thine have done." God forbid that history must forever repeat itself, but new songs will surely be forthcoming.
Programmed as a tribute to Saint-Gaudens, to complement the ongoing exhibit of the sculptor's works at the NCMA, the concert by the voice/harp ensemble called DoubleAction succeeded on many levels. Not the least was the virtual still-life display of the simple stage set, with chair and black music stand to the left of center, the gilded harp with stool and harpist's black music at center-stage and, carefully placed to the right, an arrangement of white flowers. Their green leaves nearly repeated the color of the lovely willowy gown worn by the harpist, Emily Laurance, who teaches at UNC and Duke. Boston-based tenor Thomas Gregg was attired appropriately in his Sunday best.
The introductory group of songs was intended to honor Saint-Gaudens' Irish mother. Can one define the quality that is immediately detectable as "Irish Tenor"? While I mused, upon the opening of the program, that here is a true Irish Tenor, later it became apparent that it must be the Irish music itself that projects that distinctive high tenor sound. Gregg became a tenor's tenor as the program progressed from genre to genre. The controlled simplicity of his vocal production did not suggest that he will become the first replacement for one of "the three tenors," yet Gregg's voice always maintained a pleasing quality appropriate for the chamber music selections, and his diction was exemplary.
My feeling that harp often reminds one of piano accompaniment was justified by Laurance, who at one point in her instructive commentary explained that she was using music intended for piano since harp accompaniments simply do not exist for these songs.
After groups of "Songs for his Irish Mother," "Songs for his French Father," and the "Civil War Commemorations" portion, the post-intermission section, called "The World Traveler," treated the audience to a new description of April in Paris: "Aprile" by F. Paolo Tosti (1846-1920), a lovely study en français . Translations were provided for the foreign language songs on this occasion. It was also pleasant to find comprehensive program notes, possibly for the first time in this Sights and Sounds on Sundays series. This series initially intended to use only spoken program notes, but my experience is that in the back of the hall, spoken voices are not strong enough for all audience members to fully comprehend, although one can hear most of the words. Miking would be far more pleasant and satisfying.
The Tosti song "Dreams of the Summer Night" turned out to be what The Golden Book of Songs used to entitle "Stars of the Summer Night... she sleeps, my lady sleeps." This was delightful and conjured up memories of how many years ago one might have heard it for the first time.
Following Tosti's "Chanson de l'Adieu," Sydney Homer's "Requiem" was included to recognize the relationship between Saint-Gaudens and his contemporary, the poet Robert Louis Stevenson. It is a setting to music of the familiar "Under the bright and starry sky, dig me a grave and let me die...; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill." That was followed by "The Infinite Shining Heavens" by Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958), a song that bears repetition, as I was fascinated with the last line, "The star had come down to me."
Finally, the concluding group, called "New York in the Gilded Age," entertained us with more Gay Nineties songs - "In the City Where Nobody Cares," by Charles K. Harris, "The Blind Girl to her Harp," by Stephen Glover, and Ed. Haley's "The Fountain in the Park," better known by the words "While strolling through the park one day, in the merry, merry month of May...." This crowd pleaser ended the formal part of the recital with politically correct program structure.
The well-deserved encore, "The Daisies," was cast in the character of the preceding program with the comment that it was written by Samuel Barber, a distant relative of Mrs. Saint-Gaudens. There may have been a daisy in that aforementioned imaginary still life on the stage that afternoon. If not, it took its rightful place, spiritually.