OPERA NEWS - First Songs | Bard College Conservatory of Music Graduate Vocal Arts Program
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First Songs | Bard College Conservatory of Music Graduate Vocal Arts Program

Gilder Lehrman Hall, The Morgan Library & Museum

On April 12 at the Morgan Library’s Gilder Lehrman Hall, the Bard College Conservatory of Music Graduate Vocal Arts Program presented First Songs, an array of little known or recently commissioned works by contemporary composers. Artistic Director Dawn Upshaw was to have been the headliner, giving the world premiere of Pablo Ortiz’s Garden Songs, but was felled by a stomach virus the night before. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon fearlessly stepped in and delivered a thoughtful, earnest reading of the cycle, accompanied by violin, viola and cello. It wasn’t clear how familiar she was with the work before the early morning SOS, but she was remarkably focused and confident, singing with a gleaming soprano. She even made a conscious effort to look up from the music to connect with the audience. The four songs, based on poetry by Louise Gluck, were pleasantly evocative, but melded into one another with little variety of texture or energy. Among the other premieres, Kyle Gann’s Your Staccato Ways stood out for its well-crafted songs, particularly the harmonically restless “Couplets” and the rag-infused “Hotel Minor,” delivered by the appealing tenor Corey Hart. Also impressive was undergraduate composer Tamzin Elliott’s When Vera, an excerpt from W.G. Sebald’s award-winning novel Austerlitz. Elliott’s slow, careful exploration of the memories awakened by a Holocaust refugee’s visit to his childhood home gently invoked both time and place. Kudos to soprano Kelly Newberry, whose clear diction compensated easily for the missing program texts, and who made a compelling narrator, despite the fact that the character was a forty-five-year-old man.

Sheila Silver’s Two Songs for Diane, composed in memory of pianist Gilbert Kalish’s late wife, were reminiscent of Amy Beach and touchingly rendered by the bright soprano Helen Huang. Zoe Johnson made a strong vocal and dramatic impression in “Owl Song” by Andy Vores, lashing into the repeated, frustrated fricatives of poet Margaret Atwood’s murdered girl. Pianist and Associate Director Kayo Iwama was positively fierce, and Johnson matched her in intensity and outrage. Two songs by Shawn Jaeger probed poetry of loss by Wendell Berry and were delivered with wistful simplicity by soprano Sophia Burgos. Matthew Schickele’s Since 1500, a Bard First Songs commission, was a complex post-modern a cappella madrigal, listing in Latin just some of the species of North American animals that have become extinct since 1500. The four sopranos (Johnson, Huang, Burgos and Sarah Tuttle) blended extremely well and traded virtuoso flights of coloratura when the list turned to birds. Although the lament seemed to go on for an almost uncomfortably long time, that was, perhaps the point: even a partial list is disturbingly lengthy. The finale brought together the full corps of students, who gave a lively reading of Conrad Winslow’s a cappella choral setting of “Love,” an eight-word epigram by Rochefoucauld. With its playful interludes of hand percussion and judiciously repeated phrases, the piece made its point memorably and pithily in a way Rochefoucauld would surely have appreciated. spacer


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