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The concert in Baldwin Auditorium on Friday evening, offered by Duke Music Department faculty and guests, was pitted against plenty of artistic competition in the Triangle and beyond. It was free, thus providing an opportunity for music lovers who have not yet seen and heard the renovated hall to experience it at no cost. It's a good looking place, with easy access and free parking. It seems to be still very much on its shakedown cruise, through which all new and refurbished auditoria must go. The stage is wide and deep, its floor perforated with hundreds – thousands, perhaps – of tiny holes, through which the heating and air conditioning system blows, from time to time ruffling the skirts of performers. (I mention this because unless you go up to the lip of the stage to look you might never see the floor's little air holes.) The proscenium arch and curtain are gone. The sides have been walled off, providing corridors on both sides outside the room. The balcony has been reconfigured into horseshoe seating. The magnificent dome remains as lovely as ever. But we'll have to reserve judgment on the sound, based on this one concert, as the resident artists from the department next door experiment with the placement of instruments and themselves on the stage. It may take a while.
On paper, the program, coordinated largely by pianist David Heid, was truly exceptional. The idea was to assemble an evening of vocal chamber music, rarely heard "live" and virtually never heard, as was the case on this occasion, within the confines of a single concert. There was music by Schubert and Brahms and a premiere by Scott Tilley (whose bio, given here, is a little out of date), and a local revival of a short cycle by Valerie Capers, last heard here in the fall of 2012.
On paper, too, the participants could hardly have been topped, hereabouts – and for added appeal, most have strong ties to Duke. The singers were Marlissa Hudson, a product of Duke (and of the studio there of Susan Dunn); Sandra Cotton, who teaches there, was a grad student at the Rockpile (and UNCG), and was recently heard in the Duke's all-Respighi concert; Jason Karn, ex-UNC and UNCG, most recently heard here in Tippett's Child of Our Time, in Raleigh; and Susan Dunn, widely acclaimed as one of the great American sopranos of our generation.
The instrumentalists, too, are renowned, locally and beyond; in addition to Heid, they included Jimmy Gilmore, the distinguished former principal clarinetist of the NC Symphony; Wendy Davidson, an exceptional violist; Nicholas Kenney, currently teaching horn at UNC Pembroke (and booked for a recital there next month); Bo Newsome, surely one of our state's finest and most consistently reliable oboists; and Nathan Leyland, owner of the famous flaming cello that, even without his wonderful playing, always sets him apart from the crowd. (He was filling in for Fred Raimi, originally announced.)
And the music? Well, the Schubert pieces were "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen," D.965, perhaps the best known item on the program, plus "Auf dem Strom," D.943. Hudson, Heid, and Gilmore performed the former; Karn, Heid, and Kenney, the latter. Between them came Brahms' Op. 91 songs – both of them – featuring Cotton, Heid, and Davidson. There followed the Tilley premiere, Five Questions (in which each poem begins with an inquiry), rendered by Dunn, Heid, and Newsome. The grand finale brought back Hudson for Capers' Song of the Seasons – actually four songs – with Heid and Leyland.
Now as if this weren't enough, the poems are as exceptional as the music, demonstrating once again that the best texts inspire the best music. The authors include Müller and Rellstab (Schubert); Rückert and von Geibel (Brahms); Stevens, Coleridge, Dickinson, Raleigh (as in Sir Walter), and Teasdale (Tilley); and Capers herself.
For various reasons, the Tilley songs were the clear highlight of the evening. Dunn has a large voice that is as radiant as it ever was – what a joy it is to have her here, living and working among us! One suspects that she could stand anywhere on the Baldwin stage and make herself heard over just about any instrumental competition. She certainly held her own in company with Newsome and Heid, who is her regular partner, in these exceptional new songs, written for her and for this occasion. They are in large measure love songs, and the affection that binds them with the artists is at every turn apparent. Tilley has avoided academic modernism, most likely due in part to Dunn's influence but also thanks to his background in opera and Broadway shows and his evident and abiding concern for showcasing human voices in virtually ideal settings. There is a boatload of American Romanticism in this music, with the kind of tone colors and highlighting of words that may seem, to some, old fashioned. It's the mantle of our great composers of the past, those who made our music distinctly American, that one hears here. It's Hanson and Harris and Schuman and Barber and perhaps most of all Robert Ward, with whom Tilley worked closely in the twilight of that master's professional life. The three performers seemed ideally meshed. The texts were provided, but in many cases were hardly needed, for the words were often clear and the music illustrated them ideally. Let us hope for a commercial CD at some point and, till then, another performance or two or three or more.
The Capers songs are pretty wonderful, too, and Hudson & Company did them admirably. She (Capers) quotes a Schubert song ("Der Doppelganger," D.493) at the start of the last number, titled "Winter," thus nicely bringing us back to where we began.
By this time we were thoroughly used to the hall, and the results, as heard from our stage-right perch, near the rear of the orchestra, were strong, with good balance among the musicians.
However, balance issues and aural perception diminished the impact of the first numbers. Hudson sounded distant and remote in "Der Hirt," and the work is doubly familiar, so I was hard-pressed to set aside memories of other performances, live (by Penelope Jensen, locally) and on records (among all of which Ameling may reign supreme). Balance was also a huge problem in the Brahms, with the viola consistently dominant over the mezzo; a true contralto or at least an alto with a significant chest voice and technique comparable to Cotton most likely would have made a more favorable impression in these gorgeous songs. And in the other Schubert, Karn's approach seemed simply wrong, with too much drama and attempt at vocal heroics. The horn work was admirable, as was the clarinet, in the opening piece, and Heid was consistently exemplary from start to finish.
It's true we could expend an entire lifetime without ever hearing the opening pieces done "live" and certainly not on the same concert. And it's true that we are all to a certain extent victims of too-readily available recorded performances by the world's greatest artists from the dawn of the 20th century. Right or wrong, these things color our perceptions. There were microphones high over the stage. If the concert was recorded and is eventually issued, the perspective might be entirely different from that vantage point.