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.

SongFusion debut

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)