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How fortunate we are to have at our availability on an early fall Saturday evening, thanks to Duke University’s Department of Music, the likes of soprano Susan Dunn, pianist David Heid, oboist Bo Newsome, and composer Scott Tilley. Stir together and take with a glass full of anticipation and be served a plateful of satisfaction. Dunn’s gorgeous voice has been heard from the Met to La Scala, in concert halls and recital salons. Her ability to captivate an audience with a wide variety of colors and powerful as well as tender dramatic moments is well known.
Her opening selection was “Vaga luna, che inargenti” (Lovely moon, you who shed silver light) from Tre Ariette by Vincenzo Bellini. The so-called Bel Canto style of opera is characterized by interminable repetitive recitatives, downright silly characterizations, and beautiful singing like this. Bellini is a master of composing such soaring, long melodic lines and Dunn is unexcelled at singing them. Her rendition was achingly lovely and melted every hard thought or feeling that might have been brought inadvertently into the concert hall.
One of the important elements of a recital or concert is the program you are given at the door. This is mentioned here because it is my intention when attending a concert to arrive early and have leisure to look over the chosen repertoire and the program notes. In this instance it was richly rewarding. Dunn’s notes were informative, demonstrating depth of background knowledge and making a good case for the program’s title “Moonlight and Love Songs.” A lot of thoughtful work goes into these notes and they surely add depth and pleasure to one’s enjoyment of the music.
An even more critical element in a recital is the partnering with other musicians, and when you have the likes of David Heid available to you, everything else seems easier. Well-known to Triangle audiences and beyond as an accompanist par-excellence, Heid has a remarkable sensitivity to all the elements of a co-performance such as this. Add to this an oboist of supreme mastery, Bo Newsome, and we are ready for the next selection on the program, which was performed by the musicians for whom it was specifically created.
North Carolina composer Scott Tilley has been an important presence across the state and beyond for many years. He wrote Five Questions for soprano, piano, and oboe, which premiered at the “Three’s Company” concert at Baldwin auditorium last January. As with any piece of music, the second performance may reveal additional subtleties and a stronger sense of ownership of the music.
It is a setting of five poems by five different poets each with a first line that poses a provocative inquiry. They are “What is Divinity?” by Wallace Stevens, “Do You Ask What The Birds Say?” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Why do they shut me out of heaven?” by Emily Dickinson, “What is Love?” by Sir Walter Raleigh, and “What Do I Care?” by Sara Teasdale.
Dunn’s voice was dazzling through the wide range of emotions Tilley makes apparent in his work, from dizzying turbulence to wry satire to serene confidence. Of special note was the middle piece, the Dickenson poem, set for oboe and soprano. The melding and contrasts of the timbres and the expressiveness of both artists realized beautifully the composer’s remarkable setting of the text. Heid’s piano playing was superb throughout the rest of the work, which employed all three in creative and unique ways.
Fetes galantes by Claude Debussy is a setting of three poems by Paul Verlaine that refer to a courtship party. They are “En sourdine” (Muted), “Fantouches” (Phantoms), and “Claire de Lune” (Moonlight). The three poems make reference to twilight, darkness, and moonlight. The piano accompaniment, mostly in the lower half of the keyboard and rich with Debussy’s mystical harmonies, set a reflective fluid landscape over which Dunn’s serene voice projected the mysteries and passions of love.
The closing set on the program was five songs from Enrique Granados’ collection of songs Tonadillas, inspired by the etchings of Francisco Goya. The first two of the songs, titled in English translation “The timid man” and “The discreet man,” were light and humorous and elicited chuckles from the audience. By the third song, “Love and Hate,” it was clear that Dunn had growing discomfort trying to clear her throat. After this song, about the perennial sorrows of unrequited love, Dunn announced that she would forego the fourth song and conclude the program with the final one, a favorite of hers. “The tra la la and the Plucking,” a humorous portrayal of the lover who refuses to listen, was sung with all the coquettish charm of a young senorita who knows she is totally in control.
We all hope and pray that the troublesome congestion was simply a consequence of the changing weather and the unfriendly elements in the atmosphere and that all is well with Dunn. We are most grateful for the joy these three treasured artists gave to all who heard this most delightful recital.