Festival brings life to American compositions

Graphic by Mackenzie Emmens

By Samantha Brandbergh

Westminster Choir College’s annual Art Song Festival will bring “edgy” and “jarring” works by American composers, performed by students, to the Bristol Chapel on Feb. 24 and 25.

Friday’s recital, titled “An American Modernist Voice,” and Saturday’s, titled “Voices of Today: Songs by Living American Composers” will begin at 7:30 p.m., and will feature Professor of Piano J. J. Penna on the piano accompanying the student performers.

The festival will also include a free symposium from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, titled “Uniquely American Voice,” which will feature presentations from Associate Professor of Sacred Music Steve Pilkington, Emeritus Professor of Political Science Barry Seldes and Matthew Shaftel, dean of Westminster Choir College.

Penna and Professor of Voice Lindsey Christiansen have been collaborating to curate the festival for several years. This year’s theme will focus on the connection between American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries and “music of the past,” according to Penna.

“For instance, many of our featured works tap into the spirit of innovation alive in Europe at the turn of the century,” he explained. “Many of these composers assimilate familiar materials into their works even as they forge new ground: one song cycle re-forms a Baroque cantata; many others feature writing that could be called operatic. The composers on our festival are experimental, in the best sense of that word.”

When choosing which students would perform at the festival, Penna and Christiansen were faced with selecting 20 performers out of the 80 who auditioned.

“It was important to listen not just for vocal ability but also for how expressively, how sensitively the students could communicate in English,” Penna said.

Many of the festival’s pieces are narrative-style, so the students’ story-telling abilities were also something Penna and Christiansen took into consideration.

“The performance of song is so closely wedded to the world of personal narrative and involves a commitment to character and the nuances of language, a unique concentration and focus,” Penna said.

Graduate student in vocal performance and pedagogy, Emily Solo, will be performing works by composer John Harbison during Friday’s recital, including “Somewhere a Seed” and “Your Name.”

The two works, although modern in text, still presented Solo with some challenges, who described them as “incredibly disorienting, musically.”

“There’s a lot of dissonant intervals, which illustrate these extremely emotional moments in a character’s life,” she said. “Finding pitches and counting can be quite difficult in pieces like these, but it’s all by design as I’m sure Harbison wanted the listener to be disoriented, much like the character.”

Although art song has been one of the “hardest” musical works Solo has learned during her time at Westminster, she is excited for audiences to experience the surprises the pieces can bring.

“I’m most looking forward to the audience’s reaction to the modern text and a swear word in [‘Somewhere a Seed,’]” she said. “We usually don’t hear naughty words that obviously in art song.”

While some pieces are experimental and complex, others explore familiar topics of love and spirituality, according to Penna.

“There is a distinct pleasure in exploring the canon that is our own, experiencing the worlds of these extraordinary poets, hearing music and text respond to our moment,” he said. “The songs range in theme from the anxious to the meditative, the spiritual to the joyful.”

Penna hopes that audiences attend the festival to experience the pieces by various “groundbreaking” composers.

“Each one of these songs is a compact, pressurized story; it almost feels as though one is participating even as one listens in.”

Similarly, Solo expects audiences to enjoy the performances for their unique composition and, perhaps, their relatability.

“If you can imagine an emo poem you wrote in high school, the text to the pieces I’m singing is probably pretty similar,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to hear that?”

Admission for each recital is $15 for adults and $10 for students/seniors. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 609-921-2663. 


Originally printed in the 2/22/17 edition. 

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