All kidding aside, Mirror Visions Ensemble turns 30

Tue May 02, 2023 at 7:47 pm
By David Wright
Jesse Blumberg, Daniel McGrew and Mireille Asselin performed in Mirror Visions Ensemble’s anniversary concert Monday night at Merkin Hall. Photo: Tatiana Daubek

Mirror Visions Ensemble came up with a most unusual way to observe its 30th anniversary at Merkin Hall Monday night: an evening of very serious contemporary art songs in English.

This compact constellation of singers and pianists has a reputation (to quote its own description) for “revitalization of art song programming” by means of “thematic concerts on surprising subjects…laced with humor.”  Its stock in trade has been the witty juxtaposition of songs from various countries and periods to illuminate a particular text or idea, with a few laugh-out-loud moments along the way.

The title of Monday’s program, “The Arithmetic of Alternation,” seemed to allude to MVE’s eclectic programming philosophy. It was plucked from a poem by the late Linda Pastan referring to the constant cycle of moods and seasons that “keeps us turning the page” of our lives. That and 14 other Pastan poems provided the texts for the evening’s large work, the song cycle Secrets by Tom Cipullo, which closed the program.

As the pages turned on that piece and on the program’s first half — a garland of individual songs, most having their world premieres — one waited for the “revitalization.”  But instead of Debussy, Barber, and Sondheim jostling each other as on a typical MVE bill, one mostly heard a mainstream contemporary idiom that owed something to all three.

Beautifully executed, to be sure. The composers had well-earned high reputations for vocal music, and the cast of MVE regulars—soprano Mireille Asselin, mezzo-soprano Abi Levis, tenors Daniel McGrew and Scott Murphree, and baritone Jesse Blumberg—knew their way around a song and (importantly for MVE) a text. Pianists Grant Wenaus and Margaret Kampmeier brought sensitivity and technical prowess to the enterprise.

Four winners of MVE’s 2022 Young Composers Competition received world premieres Monday. Griffin Candey set an Ada Limón love poem, “What I Didn’t Know Before,” with its metaphor of horses running, to a cantering piano, playfully rendered by Wenaus as tenor Murphree gently shaped the text. 

Alex Burtzos’s mini-cycle Sky for soprano and baritone evocatively set three poems by Nathan Kernan: Blumberg soared in long lines over Wenaus’s burbling piano in “Joie de Vivre”; a metaphorical train clacked in the piano as Blumberg and Asselin traded lines in “Urn Burial”; and the singers described an enigmatic encounter with a poet in “Sky.”

In Lisa Neher’s “A Sonnet at the Edge of the Reef,” poet Craig Santos Perez’s imagery of ocean and coral brought liquid, impressionistic piano writing and the fluent melding of the troupe’s two female voices. 

Wenaus yielded the piano bench to Kampmeier for Cheng Jin Koh’s “Impression IV,” in which a toccata-like piano part drove mezzo Levis’s slender voice high and hard to poet e.e. cummings’s urban imagery.

Also making its world bow Monday was Randall Eng’s setting of Walt Whitman’s “Miracles,” in which McGrew’s forward-placed tenor delicately phrased the poet’s long lines while Wenaus’s piano rocked, roiled, or swam according to the metaphors in the text.

Rounding out the concert’s first half was the starkly expressive “We Wear the Mask,” a setting of the famous Paul Laurence Dunbar poem by African-American composer B.E. Boykin. Mezzo Levis embodied the protagonist’s dual nature in raw, impassioned fortissimos and stifled pianissimos.

Tom Cipullo’s song cycle Secrets was performed Monday night. Photo courtesy of Tom Cipullo.

After intermission, a trio of Asselin, McGrew and Blumberg joined pianist Kampmeier for Cipullo’s Secrets, a 2002 commission by Mirror Visions Ensemble that became, on this occasion, a memorial for poet Pastan, who died last January at age 90. Pastan’s poetry was known for vivid imagery and for finding transcendent meaning hidden in everyday experiences, prompting Cipullo to set it with meticulous shaping of the text, mostly eschewing vocal display, but with piano writing that was often robust.

Kampmeier’s piano swirled and gusted as baritone Blumberg barked out the drama of “Blizzard.”  The vocal trio created veiled dissonances to a lively syncopated accompaniment in “Secrets.”  Tenor McGrew drew out long lines in “The Almanac of Lost Things,” to a piano that was flowing at first, then emphatic.

In the love song “Because,” Asselin’s soprano roamed freely to tender high notes.

Blumberg was urgent at first in “The Arithmetic of Alternation,” but reflective after a soft piano interlude. The piano boomed under the dramatic trio in “Weather Forecast.”

Geological metaphors in “Drift” brought both glacial adagio and agitated drama from Asselin and Kampmeier. The bitter irony of “RSVP: Regrets Only” simmered in McGrew’s monologue, then burst out forte before dwindling to a desolate pianissimo. Asselin and McGrew twined voices blissfully in “The Dogwoods.”

In “In Back Of,” a sad love song with a fast, motoric accompaniment, Blumberg blurted the text in short lines. McGrew joined him to muse together on disappointment over an ambling piano in “What We Want.” After the songs “Drift” and “RSVP: Regrets Only” were reprised together by Asselin and McGrew, “Subway” brought a bustling, jumpy piano, with Blumberg riding over it in long phrases, like a swaying straphanger contemplating his ultimate destination.

That destination was also hinted at in the Brahmsian piano sonorities of “The Book,” with Asselin and Blumberg climbing out of a deep funk to a piercing climax. And just the title of “In the Middle of a Life” already echoed Dante and the Beatles; this extensive solo song went on to close the cycle memorably, as Asselin took the opportunity to demonstrate not just musical recitation but some real singing skills such as finely sustained lines and velvety attacks, accompanied by bell-like piano chords that rang placidly on after her fortissimo finish.

One could hardy have asked for a better planned and performed evening of current art song, American style. One could reasonably have asked for more stylistic variety and a few laughs, Mirror Visions style. Maybe next time.

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