Mirror Visions Ensemble toasts 25 years with new commissions and old favorites
The vocal group Mirror Visions Ensemble celebrated its 25th anniversary Monday night at the Sheen Center by doing what it always does: performing an eclectic recital where the focus is as much on the poetic texts as on the musical settings, and introducing attractive new works by youthful composers.
The program, titled “Reflections and Projections: 25 Years of Mirror Visions,” featured no fewer than four world premieres, all products of the group’s Young Composers Competition.
One of them, Aaron Grad’s bucolic setting of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “Invitation to Love,” led off the evening, with soprano Vira Slywotzky, tenor Scott Murphree, and baritone Mischa Bouvier interlacing their voices prettily over Margaret Kampmeier’s gently striding piano.
Weather imagery predominated in the program’s first half, illustrating how rain, wind, clouds, and heat can mirror emotional states in the observer. Interestingly, most of the composers responded to those images not with Vivaldi-style scene-painting but with a more psychological approach.
For example, John Glover’s “Squall”—also a world premiere–set poet Leonora Speyer’s dramatic, even violent nature imagery not with a conventional storm scene but with music of unease and dread: sharp, isolated piano chords, and the voices of Slywotzky, Murphree, and baritone Jesse Blumberg huddling together in dissonant minor seconds, producing some of the most striking musical effects of the night.
Premieres in this first half also included Daniel Temkin’s three-song cycle “Summer Rain” to texts by Amy Lowell and James Joyce, and Margaret Barrett’s setting of a Carl Sandburg poem, “At a Window.”
Soprano Slywotzky and baritone Bouvier shared vocal duties in the Temkin piece, which was performed without a break, showcasing not only the singers’ skills in shaping and declaiming a text but Kampmeier’s artful piano imagery and transitions from song to song.
Here and throughout the evening, Slywotzky sang with malleable and expressive phrasing, and plenty of power in reserve. Bouvier’s voice, forward-placed but with a firm foundation, sounded most at home in its higher register, with a tenor-like ring at times.
Kampmeier, presiding at the piano throughout the first half, played with plenty of wit and color, yet always in support of the singers, much in the manner of her teacher, Gilbert Kalish.
A discreet piano background of tapping chords or ripples underlay Barrett’s setting for three singers of “At a Window,” Sandburg’s poem of redemptive love experienced at sunset. Tenor Murphree led off the first stanza with his characteristic frank and unforced vocalization, followed by Slywotzky turning up the heat a little, and finally both singers layered with baritone Blumberg to produce an unexpectedly passionate climax to Sandburg’s ode to “a little love.”
The balance of the first half was devoted to another specialty of this group, the eponymous “mirror visions,”—side-by-side performances of the same text set by different composers.
Thomas Moore’s lyric “How Sweet the Answer,” set by Benjamin Britten for soprano and piano, was all tinkling and echo effects suggested by the text, while Paul Hindemith’s version, also light in character, favored straight declamation (by Bouvier in this case) and no echoes.
Blumberg’s bronzed baritone and superb German diction, along with fine piano voicing by Kampmeier, made Brahms’s “Feldeinsamkeit” a high point of the evening. Ives’s youthful, more-or-less-Romantic setting of the same text came off well in a creamy-toned rendering by tenor Murphree.
Bouvier performed Debussy’s song “L’échelonnement des haies,” to a text by Paul Verlaine, with admirable sweep and abandon, only to be topped by Slywotzky rising to Straussian heights of ecstasy in the setting by Poldowski (real name Irene Regina Wieniawska) of the same poem.
After intermission, the concert concluded with a piece Mirror Visions Ensemble commissioned and premiered in 1999, Tom Cipullo’s A Visit with Emily, whose 21 brief sections evoked the sublimely odd personality of the poet Emily Dickinson through her poems and her correspondence with a fan and sometime visitor, T.W. Higginson.
In Monday’s energetic performance by Murphree, Blumberg, guest artist soprano Justine Aronson, and pianist Alan Darling, Cipullo proved to be a composer of seemingly inexhaustible imagination and considerable virtuosity as well. His score is dotted with Baroque forms such as chaconne, passacaglia, and two quodlibets, i.e., contrapuntal mash-ups combining two or three previous songs into one.
Murphree and Blumberg carried their parts with tenderness and passion as needed, as did soprano Aronson, whose delicate, silvery vocal timbre belied her spunky performance. Faced with a piano part that was often busy, even virtuosic, Darling supported the singers fluently and with panache.
Every composer loves having his commissioned piece brought back and performed in a subsequent season, even if it’s 18 years later. Considering the quality of the work, and the honor of having it performed on this special occasion, one imagines that A Visit with Emily was not just a successful commission, but a high point in this group’s 25-year history of ordering new music.