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Recital Review

Catherine Charlton Sings at Meredith Enroute to West Point

April 14, 2010 - Raleigh, NC:

Soprano Catherine Charlton,* teacher and recitalist, has from time to time enriched the lives of local music lovers with her artistry and that of some of her stellar students. Her recital in Meredith College's Carswell Concert Hall, officially a guest engagement, encompassed songs in six languages prepared for a concert at West Point on April 24. The tie to our nation's military academy stems from the singer’s daughter, a 2nd Lieutenant commissioned in 2009. This family doesn’t discriminate, however – their son attends school in Annapolis, home of the US Naval Academy.

The theme was “Lady of the Harbor: Stories from Ellis Island,” which explains the many tongues; in addition, most of the pieces performed stemmed from the heyday of immigration through the famous reception center (now a museum) near the Statue of Liberty.

The evening began with Lee Hoiby's powerful setting of the Emma Lazarus words inscribed on the base of that aforementioned statue. The solo version of Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103, followed – the original eleven gypsy songs were set for four voices by Brahms, who then arranged the first seven and the last one for solo voice, in which form they are almost always heard nowadays.

The program continued with Ravel's Five Greek Folksongs (also known as Popular Greek Songs, which version of the title sidesteps their folk origins). Although these are in French, the tunes seem to be authentic, but Ravel has lifted them to the level of high art, as Brahms did with the Gypsy Songs. Likewise, Rodrigo's remarkable Cuatros amatorios madrigals, “inspired by Spanish music of the 16th century,” filter the tunes through a brilliant and informed contemporary composer (1901-99).

After a short break, there was a group of four songs in Norwegian by Grieg, works sadly neglected on even the most exalted recital programs hereabouts. Libby Larsen’s Cowboy Songs will likely be big hits with the cadets next week, particularly those with a sense of history, for the Army surely dealt with its share of bucking broncos back in the days when our cavalry forces weren’t mechanized. A pair of songs from Rossini, the second of which is based on a Spanish folksong, brought the formal part of the program to a close.

Charlton's accomplished accompanist was Susan Hoskins, whose partnership was, throughout, exceptional. She also shared responsibility for the oral program notes provided. At no point was there anything less than complete agreement on phrasing and dynamics. If one were to call Charlton's performance a veritable tour de force, then the term must apply equally to Hoskins.

And indeed a tour de force it was. Charlton (attired in fire-engine red in the first half, blue in the second), took a while to warm to the task, so the Hoiby and some of the early Gypsy Songs seemed a bit harsh and strident, vocally, but it didn’t take her long to attain her stride, and by the Ravel she was consistently at the top of her game. The Rodrigo songs – including the quite overwhelming final number – were particularly heartfelt and impressive, but surely there can be no doubt that the Grieg pieces – “A Swan,” “With a Water Lily,” “Spring,” and the evergreen “A Dream” – were the vocal and interpretive highlights of this remarkable concert. That said, the beauty of the second Larsen song – “Lift me into heaven slowly” – and the magic of the Rossini pieces – “L’Invito” and “Canzonetta Spagnuola” – continue to linger in the memory.

The encore was one of Bernstein’s most heartwarming and little-known songs, “Will you build me a house,” from Peter Pan. It's as much a tear-jerker as the finale of Candide, but it takes only one singer and one pianist to do it justice – assuming the singer and pianist are as proficient as these two.

Note: The concert was dedicated to the memory of Fritz Moses, the former UNC baritone and teacher whose concerts here were among the most powerful experiences of this critic's professional life. Fritz died in 2009. It is good to be reminded of him under the happy circumstances of this recital. See his obit here.

*As of the date of publication of this review, the artist's website - http://catherinecharlton.net/ - is being revamped. It will eventually reappear online.