One of the raisons d'être for Risa Poniros'd faculty and guest recital in Meredith College's Carswell Hall at 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 30, was the performance requirement for the doctorate in Music Education that she and the two guests, cellist John Cloer and pianist/harpsichordist David Fox, are preparing at the Teacher's College of Columbia University in New York. This dictated the choice of repertoire because all three needed to be performing in all works, and while there is plenty out there for soprano and piano, there is not a lot that includes cello as well, especially pre-20th century. All the works were given in their intended versions; there were no arrangements in sight.
Hence the inclusion of one of Bach's few solo cantatas that follow original Italian models, selected from among the even fewer with Italian texts. This work also allowed the inclusion of other Meredith faculty members - Pam Nelson, flute, Jack Roller, violin I, Phyllis Garris, viola, and one talented student, Valerie Brantley, violin II. The playing was excellent, with good ensemble and balance, never overpowering the singer's clear, vibrato-less voice, which is particularly suited for works of this period, although period instruments were not used. Poniros' stage presence and performance style were appropriate to the music and the period as well.
This 25-minute piece was followed by a brief set of two 20th century American art songs. Jake Heggie's "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" was composed for and, in this reviewer's opinion much less pleasingly sung by, Zheng Cao in the recording "The Faces of Love"; the latter's excessive vibrato seems inappropriate for the text by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The second, Leonard Bernstein's "Dream With Me," had the Broadway musical-comedy feel of the majority of his songs, indelibly established in the mind by his West Side Story. Both were impeccably delivered by Poniros, although at one or two spots in the Bernstein the instruments seemed a bit too loud. Both of the guest artists are excellent players and were exceptionally good accompanists; communication among the artists could not have been better.
After a change into a cabaret-style suit, replete with tails and large black sequins down the pant legs where satin stripes would usually be, the program continued with Seymour Barab's "A Little Light Music." This is a roughly 20-minute set of five narrative songs that all seem perfectly straightforward until the last line brings an unexpected humorous twist. For example, in "Infallible System," a person who tried her luck in Las Vegas and ended up with a small fortune counsels the listener on how to do it; we learn in the final line that the surefire way is to begin with a large one! Poniros's judicious use of costume, props (sunglasses donned in one song, a hat in another, when the text called for them), body language and facial expression served to enhance the performance without taking the listener's attention away from the text, the music and the voice. Poniros maintained a stage presence and established a rapport with the audience that was perfectly suited to the material. The texts were easy to follow without any help needed from printed copy thanks to her precise, crystal-clear diction. She used her voice not only to sing, but also for appropriate sound effects, with clicks and an imitation of maracas when called for in "I Love a Latin Band," for example.
The single encore was an arrangement for the featured instrumentation by the pianist, who is also a jazz performer, of "God Bless America." This had interesting rhythms and was very nicely done. It was performed in memory the victims of the September 11 attacks.
A faculty recital is sometimes viewed by both the artist and the students as the perfunctory fulfillment of a contractual obligation. Nothing of the sort here! Poniros may be a diminutive person, but she has a colossal personality and a fine voice that she knows how to use and vary to make it suit the style of the music and the text that it accompanies. She was straightforward when she needed to be, warm or humorous when the text called for it, always with a remarkable clarity of diction often not achieved even by some of the "big name" singers. This was a wonderful model to present to an aspiring student, both in the creativity of the selection of the works and the quality of their execution. Those in the hall responded appreciatively and accordingly. The only weakness in the model was the program notes. The artist bios were of an appropriate length (with some regrettable typos), but there were virtually no notes on the works themselves, all of which, with the possible exception of the Bernstein, were "off the beaten path." Only a translation of the text for the Bach was provided: standard practice calls for the original language version as well. Another suggestion would be to commence the program with a shorter work so that late-arrivers are not forced to miss nearly half of the program while standing in the entrance hall.