Art song grows in Brooklyn with an enchanting evening of Ned Rorem

Sat Jan 05, 2019 at 2:03 pm
Brooklyn Art Song Society presented an eeveingof Nedf Rorem songs Friday night at xxx. Photo: Claudio Kronenberg

Brooklyn Art Song Society presented a program of Ned Rorem songs Friday night at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Photo: Claudia Kronenberg

To say Ned Rorem is a master of the song for singer and piano is like saying Leonard Bernstein had some success on Broadway. 

Nevertheless, evenings like the superb all-Rorem recital presented by the Brooklyn Art Song Society Friday night at the Brooklyn Historical Society—the third in a five-concert series titled “American Iconoclasts”—give us a chance to step back and appreciate the many sides of the composer’s nearly 500 works in this genre.

With their settings of allusive modern poetry in an elusive musical style, Rorem’s songs certainly do not “perform themselves.”  To achieve their full effect in concert requires artists of exceptional sensitivity and the ability to communicate. On Friday they got all that and more.

A cast of four singers and three pianists opened with a group of nine songs from the period during or just after Rorem’s youthful nine-year sojourn in Paris, then offered the slightly later song cycles War Scenes and Poems of Love and the Rain, capturing in every case the nuanced expression of this Indiana-born francophile composer.

In these works, Rorem helped himself to the expressive vocabulary of the mid-20th century—the liberated dissonances, the disjunct musical lines—when inspired to do so, but he swam against the dodecaphonic current of the time by staying true to tonal harmony under it all. Like his models Debussy, Poulenc and Thomson, he could write music as euphonious as a lullaby or as shocking as a sforzando cluster.

He was guided less by theories than by the rhythms and inflections of the English language, by what lay well for the voice, and by the urge to explore the emotions between the emotions, the unmapped territory of the contemporary Anglo-American poets he admired.

Like many other composers, Rorem is strongly associated with a youthful work he subsequently outgrew. “Early in the Morning” became his best-known song not only for its melodic appeal, but for its portrait of the artist as a young man, blissfully imbibing all the sensory pleasures of a summer morning in Paris. The elegant, saucy Ned of the Paris Diaries (“I was twenty and a lover”) springs to life in this vignette.

There was a touch of wistfulness in baritone Steven Eddy’s smile as he floated out the vocal line of “Early in the Morning.” But Eddy turned on the power, and a solid lower register, for the rough-hewn, even malodorous poetry of Theodore Roethke in “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Root Cellar.”

Alternating with Eddy in the first song group was soprano Sarah Brailey, who focused her full-bodied voice forward to interpret the Debussy-like “Clouds” for the Historical Society’s intimate lecture room. Her articulation ranged from gently detaché  in “The Waking,” to melting legato in “Little Elegy” and Rorem’s arrangement of Foster’s “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” to crisp in the fast and ecstatic “I Strolled Across an Open Field.”

Baritone Eddy rounded out the first set dramatically, alternating sostenuto and rapid delivery amid the fast-moving imagery of Elizabeth Bishop’s ironic poem “A Visit to St. Elizabeth’s.”

Pianist Daniel Zelibor was a strong partner throughout this group, whether exhaling an impressionistic fog to envelop the voice or pounding out a drunken waltz to goad the singer’s rage.

Walt Whitman’s war writings veer between poetic musings and hard-nosed reporting of the most distressing or bizarre things he witnessed on the battlefield. Rorem collected five excerpts for his cycle War Scenes.

What better instrument to convey this poet’s passion and fierce irony than the massive yet hyperarticulate bass-baritone of Dashon Burton? The appalled poet’s words amid the carnage came intensely to life in Rorem’s unsparing settings, as Burton’s powerful delivery of the text was matched by Michael Brofman’s bold performance of the challenging, volatile piano part. (Brofman, the artistic director of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, also wrote a perceptive program note on Rorem for this event.)

Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen may be petite of frame, but she packs a big instrument and gave it free rein to fill the room Friday night. (One wasn’t surprised to find a Wagner role in her program bio.) Creamy of tone and consistent in all registers, Rosen’s voice gave one a lot to listen to, but so did her imaginative approach to Rorem’s song cycle Poems of Love and the Rain, with its unusual reflexive design, setting all the texts once, and then a second time in reverse order.

Is love (and rain) better the second time around?  Rorem’s approach threw a spotlight on the choices a composer makes when setting a text, as little differences blossomed into big ones a verse or two later, or a poem showed an entirely different side of itself in the second setting. Singer Rosen was alert to all of this, as was pianist Daniel Schlosberg, who brought a marvelous variety of touch and play-anything technique to the task.

This engrossing recital was preceded by a substantial prelude and talk, in which composer and critic Russell Platt, formerly a Rorem student at Curtis, shared his firsthand impressions of Rorem as composer and teacher. Then baritone Eddy, pianist Zelibor, and the sweet-voiced soprano Charlotte Mundy–a late substitute for Justine Aronson–performed four songs by Platt that were as eloquent a tribute to his teacher as anything he had just said.

The “American Iconoclasts” series continues with Copland’s Old American Songs and 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1. brooklynartsongsociety.org; tickets at brownpapertickets.com.


One Response to “Art song grows in Brooklyn with an enchanting evening of Ned Rorem”

  1. Posted Jan 08, 2019 at 5:28 am by James Dowell

    How important it is to remember the work of this wonderful composer, a sort of living national treasure who is also a link to a great age of American music. Congratulations to Mr. Zelibor and the others for helping keep this flame alive.

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