Vocal Music Review



American Song: Premieres Abound at NCSA

April 17, 2007 - Winston-Salem, NC:


The finest creative and re-creative skills of the North Carolina School of the Arts’ faculty were on display during this recital that featured two North Carolina premieres and one world premiere. An enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience in Watson Hall listened closely and cheered lustily like sports fans.

Jeffery Kahane, familiar to Triangle audiences as both a conductor and pianist, celebrated his fiftieth birthday in September 2006. Four composers, including Kenneth Frazelle (b.1955), wrote piano works in honor of Kahane. Frazelle’s work, “Elixir” (2006), was given its NC premiere at this concert by the composer, who describes the piece as being “in the cantabile tradition of Chopin’s Nocturnes.” This lovely work ought to transcend its “occasional piece” origins. Its clear musical lines, bell-like treble part, and subtly varied timbre are immediately winning. Frazzelle’s finesse with the ivories can stand comparison with any of the NCSA’s excellent piano faculty.

The phenomenal breath control and precise intonation of David Jolley (b.1948) were on display in his “Variations on a Jewish Prayer” (2005). There were no program notes about the work but the initial theme seemed fairly familiar. Jolley’s quiet hand-stopped notes were lovely, and his articulation of fast passages was simply amazing.

Frazelle, a native of Jacksonville, NC, violates the premise of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. He attended high school at the NCSA where he studied composition with Robert Ward. The 1978 Juilliard School graduate returned and now teaches composition at the NCSA. Perhaps memories of the long leaf pines of Eastern NC played a role in Vanishing Birds (2007) for soprano and piano, which received its world premiere. The four sections are “Carolina Parakeet,” “Piping Plover,” “Red Cockaded Woodpecker,” and “Parakeeto (Audobon’s View).” The texts are drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century naturalists and current news copy. The extinct Carolina parakeet, the only parrot native to North America, is the subject of the opening and closing sections. “Piping Plover” is a setting of the song of the bird, a vocalise for soprano above piano. The third section recounts the ruin of a long leaf pine forest, the woodpecker’s habitat, by “three hundred and sixty-eight rednecks” with chain saws in 2006. Frazelle’s piano accompaniments were immediately attractive, and Marilyn Taylor’s performance was like a singer’s master class, melding vocal technique with care for the meaning of words. Her voice was seamless across its range, with carefully gauged dynamics and a wide palette of color.

According to the brief program note by composer Lawrence Dillon (b.1959), a childhood accident in which he was struck by a car while walking home from school and spent a subsequent three months in traction and a body cast “left [him] changed in ways [he] can barely describe.” His "Singing Silver" (2006) mixes music, poetry, and storytelling in manners more like the troubadour tradition than those of the art song or opera. It is scored for soprano, narrator, horn, cello, and a discreetly miked guitar. Brief lines of text were projected on a screen between the narrator and musicians. This was its North Carolina premiere, following its world premiere in New York last fall by the International Contemporary Ensemble. On the right side of the stage, composer Dillon declaimed his original text using a microphone. Soprano Taylor sometimes sang snatches of Dillon’s enigmatic text about “sixteen thousand diamonds," reflecting the setting sun. Other times her voice was used instrumentally in wordless sounds. The subtle accompaniment was by guitarist Gerald Klickstein, cellist Grace Anderson (from UNCG), and hornist Jolley. The work is fraught with multiple allusions and, while immediately intriguing, needs several hearings to begin to get a handle on it. Dillon is currently composer-in-residence at the NCSA.

Composer Bruce Adolphe (b.1955) is Resident Lecturer and Director of Family Concerts for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, founding creative director of PollyRhythm Productions, and comic keyboard quiz master of NPR’s weekly radio program "Piano Puzzlers." Adolphe’s Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering (1984) sets six well-known selections from Ladino poetry for soprano, horn, and guitar. Ladino is a fusion of Castilian Spanish of the fifteenth century and Hebrew from many regions of Spain. This hybrid Sephardic Jewish language was spread across much of Europe to Turkey after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Adolphe’s music made no attempt to imitate any folk tradition. Taylor’s enunciation was excellent,and she brought out the despair present in many of the songs. The accompaniments by Klickstein on guitar and Jolley on horn (he assisted at the world premiere at Lincoln Center in 1984) were stimulating and subtle.