An enthusiastic crowd cheered Kenneth Frazelle’s most recent (premiered in 2010) song cycle, Songs in the Rear View Mirror, presented in the Watson Recital Hall on the campus of the UNC School of the Arts, by visiting guest artists Kathryn Findlen, mezzo soprano, and Richard Masters, piano. Wikipedia defines a song cycle as “a group of songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a single entity.” I might add that occasionally the cycle has chronological importance, as when a plot seems to unfold, but more often the songs are related more by character and theme than by cause and effect.
Since the international success of Still/Here, a multimedia dance work, in 1994, Frazelle’s career as a composer seems to have been hitched to a star. Prematurely white-haired, composer Kenneth Frazelle comes across as modest and self-effacing, avuncular and friendly, amused and curious. I can imagine his students (at UNCSA) adore him.
It was a pleasure to hear the composer’s earlier piece, Return, setting three poems of the late A. R. Ammons, a long-time friend and mentor of Frazelle. Harking back to a pointillist style Frazelle used in the 1980s and reminiscent of the late music of Roger Sessions with whom he studied at the Juilliard School, these songs show three distinct moods – the first, “Father,” begins with the softest pianissimo the piano is capable of and builds in intensity and texture until the mention of Mother pulls us from dissonance to a clear moment of tonal harmony before ending shrilly on a very high note for the singer. The second song, “Retiring,” starts forte in the piano with a rippling triplet effect that culminates on some “great names – / nimbostratus, cirrocumulus – / till so many fine distinctions / become clouds again…” This 12-minute cycle ends with “I Went Back” in which a decidedly agitated piano contests the soprano’s long slow memory, not washed away, of the “old home.”
After a brief pause, we were treated to the pièce de résistance, a 40-minute composition comprising ten songs inspired by the book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South” by James Agee and Walker Evans, and perhaps more directly by the photographs of Alabama native, William Christenberry, whose footsteps Frazelle apparently retraced, unearthing “many poignant, nostalgic and often turbulent memories from his own Southern past” (from the program notes).
“Setting Out,” the first song, set the tone, a bit frantic (“Where are we”), but by the second song, “Green Warehouse,” the colors of the pictures melded with the words (“…Dear green warehouse... John Deere green”) and the music. “Beech Tree Initials” started with some great and imposing chords on the piano. “Kudzu” was sweet comic relief with its stride piano style and rather over-stated bar room presentation, followed by the “Unmarked Grave” with its desolate mood enhanced by pastel Styrofoam flowers fashioned from egg cartons and then “Interior” in desolate monody. “Road Signs” was an entertaining pastiche of “fruit for sale” signs, evangelical entreaties, ending with a punch line delivered by the pianist!
The dramatic climax of the song cycle is the song “In the Night” with its allusion to forbidden sex, kept secret with LifeSavers. This song made very vivid the virtuosity of pianist Richard Masters and the skill of Frazelle’s colorful and almost orchestral piano writing. “Farther Along,” the penultimate song alludes to the South’s not-too-distant past, Selma, and Klubs where pointed hoods used to gather. The impressive last song, “Long Drift” juxtaposes floating in green-gray sea water in the safety of inner tubes and the drifting of a kite, higher and higher (21 times!) with “in the hospital Daddy drifting floating away…” I was reminded of the closing of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde which lingeringly ends with an unresolved 6th and the repeated “Ewig… ewig… ewig” (Forever… ever… ever).
Mezzo soprano Kathryn Findlen has a beautiful voice, warm and dark in the middle and lower registers and clear and pure in the top, with impeccable intonation throughout. However, I found her histrionics distracting, but as I was also having a problem understanding the words, I escaped that distraction by following the texts of the songs printed in the program insert. Her partner, pianist Richard Masters is an astounding pianist who did justice to Frazelle’s demanding score and set the mood and fueled climax of many of the songs. There were a few times when Ms. Findlen was in the lower register that the piano covered the voice, obscuring the words.
The attractive 28-page “program insert” replete with Christenberry pictures and the composer’s work-notes was illuminating. Curious program readers may have discovered that by carefully prying the booklet’s cover apart, one discovers a 17” by 22” color poster of the song cycle’s next performance, May 20, 2013 in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City.