Brooklyn Art Song casts a wide and intriguing net with songs of “Worldliness”

Fri Apr 07, 2023 at 1:24 pm
The Brooklyn Art Song Society presented the first program of its New Voices festival Thursday night.

Following their ambitious and extensive series exploring music in and around the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Brooklyn Art Song Society opened a smaller but equally probing project Thursday night. At the first Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, in Brooklyn Heights, three singers delivered the first of three concerts in BASS’s third annual New Voices festival. While the stated theme this year, “Worldliness,” doesn’t say anything in particular, the program was an intriguing look at some of the enduring modernist ideas in contemporary European classical music

There was a common quality in works from six different composers—Kaaija Saariaho, Hannah Kendall, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Aribert Reimann, Benjamin Attahir, and Harrison Birtwistle—who spanned multiple generations: expressionism. The styles differed in complementary ways, filling in facets of the dense possibilities of music that captures heightened, even ultra-real, psychological and emotional states. The singers—soprano Maggie Finnegan, countertenor Daniel Moody, and tenor Andrew Fuchs—were equal partners in this, performing with a focus on the music’s expression; the presentation of the voice was secondary.

Not that there wasn’t substantial beauty in their vocal sounds. Finnegan, with pianist Alexa Stier, sang the opening set of a total format of four, putting together Saariaho’s “Luonnon kasvot” with “Incident” by Kendall and “Hvolt” from Thorvaldsdottir. Her voice was bright, with a rapier-like intonation. The bookends of the set were songs reacting to nature while full of foreboding about the future, and the shining quality of her singing balanced the music on the point between stability and disaster. Kendall’s dream-like setting was a complex psychodrama of landscape, myth, and death. This was intense, literary music, and while the narrative may not have connected to all listeners, one admired Finnegan’s strength and control.

Equally literary—but less personal and perhaps then with broader appeal—was Reimann’s complex and involving Sinnig zwischen beyden Welten, sung in its American premiere by Moody, again with Stier and with violist Chieh Fan Yiu. The music sets lyrics by David Harsent, Baudelarian lines about cold, black nights, threatening strangers, sudden beauty and equally sudden violence. Moody sang this exquisitely crafted music with vehemence, his voice powerful and insistent. Yiu’s playing was just as vehement, his antiphonal lines carving through space. One was gripped by the piece, and the playing, even as one felt that there was too much depth and complexity in the music to take in one sitting.

After intermission, Finnegan and Stier returned with Attahir’s De l’ineffable. This was a vocalise, and no less expressive than the previous works. Finnegan’s soprano sound was compelling, siren-like, and her technique and intonation were excellent. The brightness of her sound was a fine fit for this music, which is lovely but with unsettling undercurrents, moving from a flowing opening section to a much darker, stentorian, dramatic second section—Stier was especially forceful here—before returning to the opening music in a sonata-like way. It was like a journey through lost innocence.

Fuchs, with Michael Brofman at the piano, sang Birtwistle’s Songs from the Same Earth. This was a fine companion to Riemann’s songs, taking similar symbolist poetic imagery and setting it to music that was more attenuated. Riemann’s darkness and harmonic richness were upfront, in Birtwistle, it was more hints and snatches, slender horizontal lines snaking in and out of balance. Fuchs continued the terrific singing, with a warm, slightly grainy, high tenor sound. His slightly understated delivery was apt for this quiet music, outlining the haunting nature of lines like “A room of mouths / Calling your name.”

BASS’ New Voices festival continues at 7:30 p.m., May 5, with a world premiere by Huang Ro, and music by Dan Fujikura, Reena Esmail, Tonia Ko, and others.

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