SongFusion and “States of Mind”

It was a program plotted with exceptional care. The singers and pianists of SongFusion put together a group of 20 songs (all but one in English) by 13 composers (all American, depending on how you count Kurt Weill), and gathered into three thematic groups: Love and Hate; Joy and Sorrow; Wonder and Desire, all under the rubric “States of Mind”. As if it wasn’t hard enough to make these groupings, while keeping an eye on creating a varied succession of expressive and vocal types,  SongFusion threw another element into the mix, with Kevork Mourad, a visual artist, sketching on the spot while the singers performed. He wasn’t sketching the singers, but making drawings inspired by the mood of the songs. The drawings were projected – mostly on a screen at the back of the stage, but also, imaginatively, on the clothing of the performers. My friend Mary Mackenzie took the next logical step, with abstract efflorescences appearing directly on her body in a projected image on the screen – you can see the body art in this picture:

(No, he didn’t draw on her while she sang! This was prepared beforehand.)

The program drew on the work of several composers best known for their songs as well as those whose catalog ranges more widely (see the full listing here). There were strong pieces and performances throughout the evening. Speaking of the pieces I know best: I do love Barber’s “Solitary Hotel” for the irregular but perfectly timed way he embeds Joyce’s fragments into the underlying tango, as well as for the mysterious mood and cryptic ending. Among Harbison’s songs, his Mirabai set is best known, but last night we heard excerpts from the less widely performed cycle Simple Daylight. These pieces are rather tough for the performers, with densely worked piano parts and vocal lines that are demanding both technically and emotionally (the set was originally composed for Dawn Upshaw and, I believe, James Levine, though I don’t know if he ever played it – it’s Gil Kalish accompanying on the fine Nonesuch recording.) Mary pulled off the perfect little black hole of hate that is “Somewhere A Seed” powerfully, in part by holding back and smiling cheerfully during the first part of the piece, reserving the acid scorn of the song’s narrator for later in the game when it could sting all the more intensely. I am very grateful for Mary’s performance of “Every Day is a God”, from my cycle Holy the Firm, another piece written for Upshaw. Mary and her pianist Kathleen Tagg conveyed the sensuous and spiritual ecstasies of Annie Dillard’s gorgeous text with a contagious joy.

The concert took place at the DiMenna Center in Manhattan – this is the home of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s – although theoretically a rehearsal space, I thought the room worked well for a performance.

SongFusion members are Victoria Browers and Mary Mackenzie, sopranos; Michael Kelly, baritone; Liza Stepanova and Kathleen Tagg, piano. Guest artists last night included Henrik Heide, flute; Edward Klorman, viola (they joined the group for Tom Cipullo’s touching “The Husbands”) and Tyler Learned, lighting designer. I very much look forward to their next performance.

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