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This has been the season for whirlwind composer residencies in the area: last week Jennifer Higdon with the North Carolina Symphony, this week Libby Larsen with the UNC-CH Music Department, sponsored in part by the Sigma Alpha Iota music fraternity for women. Larsen conducted a two-day series of master classes with undergraduates who had been preparing her works for voice and various chamber ensembles, coaching them on technical and interpretive approaches to her music. Larsen's residency culminated with a concert devoted solely to her music and reflecting her work with the students.
Larsen is one of the country's most prolific and frequently performed composers, noted particularly for her songs and her ability to wed poetry with music. Larsen draws inspiration from an enormous variety of sources, from abstract metaphors to Fred Astaire's dancing style. Her own music is understandably eclectic, sometimes tonal and lyric, sometimes angular, atonal and syncopated. The program reflected the many phases of her style.
UNC-CH voice professor Terry Rhodes, organizer of the residency, said in her opening remarks that Larsen's coaching had been both musically significant and nurturing for the students, who all crowded around her at the post-performance reception, chatting and laughing like old friends. Larsen's program notes from the stage, which provided the context for the pieces, most of which were excerpts from a longer work, were perhaps overly long and a bit gushy. Nevertheless, she communicated to the audience the particular musical challenges of each work – for example projecting understandable American and British English in the bel canto style in which classical singers are trained.
Larsen has a particular affinity for portraying the life experiences of women. The first numbers on the program were excerpts from three song cycles. Soprano Meg Monroe sang "Bright Rails" from Margaret Songs, to poetry by Willa Cather, which centers on the cultural and life values of the East and the West during the westward expansion and how it affected the lives and expectations of women. "He Never Misses" and "A Working Woman," from Songs from Calamity Jane to her daughter Janey, 1880-1902, were for us the highlight of the evening. Calamity Jane had a daughter – the father possibly Wild Bill Hickock – whom she sent East to an adoptive family so that the girl could grow up without the trials and prejudice experienced by her mother (Jane never mailed the letters; presumably her daughter read them only after her death.) In cowgirl attire, sopranos Louise Brock and Katie Cole* gave stirring and perfectly enunciated interpretations of the two songs.
Soprano Emily Shepherd sang the dramatic monologue, "My Letters!" from Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, demonstrating the distinction between singing "British" and singing "American." Finally, baritone Jay Dolan sensitively performed the bi-lingual song "Perineo" (perineum), Larsen's contribution to the AIDS Quilt Songbook, A contemplation of and a study in breathing.
In all of her songs, Larsen is especially sensitive to the text and, like Schubert, has been careful to make the piano accompaniment reflect the meaning of the song rather than adhere to any particular musical style. The accompanists for the four singers were Lyuba Egorova, Katie Cole and Cameron Hayden.
Larsen's Dancing Solo for clarinet was inspired by the dancing of Fred Astaire. She had composed this work as a showpiece for the clarinet, demonstrating its flexibility and agility. Lesley Bradner played the first movement, "with shadows," with clarity and panache, accentuating Larsen's play with imitation and dynamics.
In Blue Third Pieces for flute and guitar, Larsen explores the possibilities of the "blue third" interval in jazz. Flutist Felice Cary and guitarist Alexander Morgan performed the two movements, titled "Deep Blue" and "Salted Peanuts." Cary in particular has a clear, fluid tone and was completely at ease with the flow of the interplay between the two instruments.
The one complete vocal work on the program, This Unbearable Stillness, Songs from the Balcony for string quartet and soprano, was for us the least successful, although extremely well played and sung by violinist Mollie Stapleton and Megan Seiler, violist Rebecca Morgan, cellist Leah Gibson and soprano Melinda Whittington. Based on poems by Dima Hilal and Sekeena Shaben, two Americans of Middle Eastern origin, the music did not seem what we had now come to expect of Larsen's close blending of music and poetry. Even after she had explained that the piece had been inspired by the metaphor of the veil in all its meanings, we still had trouble making much sense of some of the poems. It may be that Larsen's music reflects a different take on the texts from ours through her long association with them during the compositions process.
The program concluded with a movement from Barn Dances for flute, clarinet and piano, performed by flutist Gale Stout, clarinetist Jennifer Love and pianist Alex Watson. This is a work inspired by square dance calls, as Larsen says, one of the many small elements that make up the grand mosaic of our country's culture and indirectly its music. Larsen was intrigued with how square dance calls could be transformed into music. The movement, "Forward Six and Fall Back Eight," referring to steps forward and backward, provides the melodic and rhythmic elements of this clever, charming piece.
The enthusiasm, dedication and sense of fun projected by the performing students demonstrated the benefits of such intense workshops with a composer who is also a master communicator. But it also reflected on the meticulous preparation that went into this performance long before Libby Larsen ever set foot on the UNC-CH campus.
*Correction 2/5/06: In the song "Working Woman," the soprano was Rachel FitzSimons; Katie Cole was the pianist.