It was a pleasure to hear soprano Mary MacKenzie and pianist Kathleen Tagg perform two of my Three Sacred Songs Monday night at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Manhattan’s upper east side. This was part of a program previewing the concerts planned for next season by the members of SongFusion – three singers and two pianists devoted to fresh presentations of the art of song. The other core members of the group are Victoria Browers, soprano; Michael Kelly, baritone; and Liza Stepanova, piano. They were joined Monday by guests Kevork Mourad, a visual artist; John Romeri, flute; and Michael Truesdell, percussion. The program was quite wonderfully varied, with thoughtful and imaginative programming. There was a Liszt group (it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth this year) that included three settings of “Was Liebe Sei”, written at different times in the composer’s life. A German group (Schumann, Strauss, Schubert) included projected drawings by Kevork Mourad. To me, this was too much of a good thing; a song listener is already dividing attention between singer and printed poem; the drawings, moody and evocative though they were, proved more than I could deal with. After intermission there were some pieces without piano: five short Virgil Thomson songs on phrases from the Song of Solomon, with light touches of percussion accompanying Mary; and a set of Irish folk song settings by John Corigliano, with Victoria in duo with flute. There were two couples for “The Old Gray Couple” of John Musto: Mary and Michael portrayed the title couple, and the pianists provided four-hand accompaniment. (I’ve never tried writing vocal duets with piano, it seems like something worth exploring…) Mary closed with my songs, which are arrangements of old sacred melodies, with Latin texts. She and Kathleen beautifully captured the repose of “Jesu Dulcis Memoria” and the exuberance of “O Fillii et Filliae”. In fact, there were very fine performances all evening – I look forward to hearing the group next season.
There was a lovely set of coincidences at play here. I know Mary from hearing her do my Three Sacreds at John Harbison’s Token Creek Festival – she subsequently did them as well as excerpts from my Holy the Firm in Philadelphia. Among other work as a New York free-lancer, Mary is a member of the professional choir at St. Jean’s, a church that is staffed by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, the order that staffed the church in which I grew up back in Cleveland. John Kamas, a priest who was on staff in Cleveland – where he gave me my very first commission – and who has served as pastor at St. Jean’s, hired me to substitute a few times as organist when I was living in NYC in the 80’s. And who should I see when I walked into the church Monday night, having had a fine supper with John – but Judith Kellock, the superb soprano I know from Songfest, where I accompanied her in excerpts from my Holy the Firm when we were both on faculty there. It was at Songfest that Judy met members of SongFusion.
(picture: interior of St. Jean Baptiste Church)