Mirror Visions Ensemble winningly reflects the holiday season
From its self-description, one might think Mirror Visions Ensemble should be called Concerts for English Majors. The group of three singers and a pianist, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, states its mission to be performing “settings of the same text by different composers.” Text authors receive equal billing with composers in the program.
When the author is William Shakespeare, and four different settings of his rustic winter ode “When icicles hang by the wall” adorn an eclectic Christmas program of the same title, as happened Tuesday night in the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street, the concept can pay off handsomely.
Most of Tuesday’s concert, however, was less a seminar in text-setting than a Santa’s bag of seasonal items sacred and secular, spanning six centuries from the Middle Ages to Broadway.
Slipped in among the 25 brief numbers was a world premiere, Christopher Berg’s intricate, harmonically adventurous setting of the above-mentioned Shakespeare lyric, commissioned by Mirror Visions Ensemble. The owl’s “tu-whit, tu-who” came in for particularly humorous treatment, deftly executed by the vocal trio of Vira Slywotzky, soprano, Scott Murphree, tenor, and Mischa Bouvier, baritone.
Berg’s delightful piece was one of the few on the program that did not involve pianist Grant Wenaus, the fourth member of the ensemble, who kept his modest “collaborative pianist” hat firmly in place all evening, even when opportunities for self-expression beckoned. Wenaus’s fluent playing and attention to detail put a firm foundation under the singers’ showier efforts.
With apologies for national stereotyping, it didn’t come as a surprise to learn that Wenaus is Canadian, which he revealed when amusingly introducing “The Huron Carol” as “the piece I didn’t know everybody didn’t know.” Apparently the carol, composed by missionaries using Native American (or rather, First Nations) imagery in the text, is as familiar north of the border as “Joy to the World” is here. The foursome performed Wenaus’s own arrangement, artfully varied from stanza to stanza.
Among the singers, soprano Slywotzky appeared to be in charge of the vivacity department for most of the evening, while her male colleagues tended to adopt a cooler, lieder-recital stance. She also brought a more robust, vibrato-rich vocal style to the table than the others.
All were called upon, however, to adjust their singing to musical styles ranging from church chant to Debussy and beyond, which they did well enough to evoke whatever century they were in at the moment.
There was, for example, a touch of British music hall about Roger Quilter’s jaunty setting of the Shakespeare lyric for tenor, baritone and piano, which led off the program. The vocal trio successfully shifted gears to a denser contemporary idiom for a setting of the same text by Yale professor and Mirror Visions Ensemble co-founder Richard Lalli.
The group of three German Romantic pieces that followed served to introduce the male singers, with tenor Murphree (another MVE co-founder) delivering Loewe’s “Der Hirten Lied am Krippelein” with a silky, café-au-lait sonority, and baritone Bouvier offering focused lyricism with an easy resonance behind it in Wolf’s “Nun wandre, Maria.” Schumann’s brief trio “Weihnachtslied” rounded out the group.
Subsequent groups made thoughtful connections between the pieces, as when Leontovych’s “Shchedryk” (commonly known as the “Bell Carol”) was matched with Britten’s resonant “Hodie Christus natus est,” or when the ensemble took a peripheral tour of Europe in a group of items by Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rodrigo–this last, “Copillas de Belén” for soprano and piano, playing nicely to Slywotzky’s flamboyant side.
The soprano also completed the cycle of four “Icicles” settings with a vigorous, mordant performance of a solo version with piano by the early-20th-century Anglo-Irish composer E. J. Moeran.
Things loosened up considerably toward the program’s close with a group of old English drinking songs. The comic effect of Bouvier’s stumbling, lascivious performance in the “Gloucestershire Wassail” was heightened by memories of the baritone’s dignified demeanor earlier in the evening.
Bouvier’s fall from dignity was complete in the Australian Christmas novelty song “Six White Boomers” by Rolf Harris and John D. Brown, in which he portrayed, in a screechy falsetto, a “joey” (baby kangaroo) reunited with his mother by Santa (played with physical presence by Slywotzky), with the aid of a ride in Santa’s sleigh, pulled by a team of “boomers” (elderly kangaroos).
This hilarious number somewhat upstaged the rest of its closing group of show songs, including “Twelve Days to Christmas” from Jerry Bock’s She Loves Me, Cahn and van Heusen’s “The Secret of Christmas,” and Irving Berlin’s “Snow” from White Christmas.
However, these singers’ talents seemed to shine especially brightly in all the theatrical items, from the satirical zest of “Twelve Days” to Bouvier’s meditative solo in “Secret” to Berlin’s dreamy, evocative ensemble piece, which closed Tuesday’s program.
The management thoughtfully provided a large, handsome booklet of song texts and translations—then turned down the house lights too low to follow it during the performance. Perhaps that was deliberate, and for the best—why read a book when the singers are showing you what you need to know?
Mirror Visions Ensemble performs a 25th-anniversary program, “Reflections and Projections,” 8 p.m. Jan. 16, 2017 at the Sheen Center. sheencenter.org; 866-811-4111.