CONCERT REVIEW: American art song celebrated in Berkeley

In the world of art song, American composers have always taken a back seat to their European predecessors. But Sunday afternoon's splendid concert by composers Jake Heggie and Ricky Ian Gordon showed that the American tradition is just as vibrant and distinctive as the music of the past.

Presented in Hertz Hall as part of Cal Performances' Composer Portrait series, the event offered new and recent works by Heggie and Gordon. With both composers present to accompany their own works on piano (and graciously serve as page–turners for each other), an excellent lineup of vocal soloists –– sopranos Kristin Clayton and Marnie Breckenridge, mezzo–sopranos Zheng Cao and Frederica von Stade, tenor Nicholas Phan and baritone Kyle Ferrill –– gave voice to a dynamic array of songs, song cycles and short operatic works.

The result was a stunning display by two of America's finest contemporary composers and the poets who have inspired them (the range of texts alone was astonishing, from writers including James Agee, Emily Dickinson, Raymond Carver, Frank O'Hara, A.E. Housman, Langston Hughes and Dorothy Parker.)

San Francisco–based Heggie, whose most frequently performed work is the opera "Dead Man Walking," and New York's Gordon, whose adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath" recently premiered at Minnesota Opera, have highly individual composing styles. Yet both men share a core set of musical values –– a love of melody, an ear for evocative texts and a keen sense of music's theatrical potential.

Those values were in evidence throughout Sunday's 21/2–hour concert. With well–chosen singers able to fully invest themselves in the repertoire at hand, the emotional content of each work came through with theatrical eloquence. This was not a "stand and sing" recital, but a brilliant collection of brief musical dramas.

The program's first work, Heggie's "At the Statue of Venus," set the tone. Composed to a text by "Dead Man Walking" librettist Terrence McNally, the 25–minute work is a mini–opera in the tradition of great concert "scenas" by Haydn and Mozart; a woman, waiting for a blind date in an art museum, gives voice to a storm of inner doubt. It's a funny, touching contemporary piece, and Clayton, who sang the world premiere for Opera Colorado in 2005, reprised the role here with spirit and finesse.

The audience heard another side of Heggie in the song cycle "Here and Gone." Drawing on texts by Housman and Vachel Lindsay, the composer creates an elegiac picture of the unrequited love of two men; Phan, Ferrill and Heggie were joined by a string trio –– violinist Dawn Harms, violist Carla–Maria Rodrigues and cellist Emil Miland –– in a hauntingly dark–hued performance. Von Stade sang affectingly in four songs from another Heggie cycle, "Winter Roses."

Gordon's music, presented in the second half, was just as varied and compelling. Throughout the set, one could hear elements of jazz ("Ring–a–Ding–Ding," for piano four hands, played with ebullient energy by Gordon and Heggie), blues ("Open All Night," a setting of an Agee poem, sung with brio by Zheng Cao) and Broadway ("Dream True," with text by playwright Tina Landau, handsomely delivered by Phan and Ferrill.)

Yet the composer always manages to sound like no one but himself. Highlights included Breckenridge's penetrating performance of "RedDress" (text by Parker), and Phan's potent delivery of the Hughes poem "Heaven."

All the singers returned for the finale, a gorgeous performance of Gordon's "Will There Really Be a Morning?" Hearing the song, which incorporates the famous Dickinson text, the composers appeared to be just as moved as the audience. Why not? It was a rare scene: a cast of first–rate singers, all pouring their hearts into a new American music.
- Georgia Rowe, Contra Costa Times, 30 Apr 2007