By Megan O’Connell
Westminster faculty members Elem Eley, a baritone, and J.J. Penna, a pianist, have received critical acclaim for their recent recording Drifts and Shadows: American Songs for the New Millennium.
The CD was released in September 2008 and was produced by Albany Records. Eley and Penna received good reviews of the CD shortly after it was released in
January and February 2009, but the recognition from Estep was by far the most significant.
The CD was recently chosen by Stephen Estep as one of his six Critic’s Choices of 2010 in the American Record Guide, a magazine about classical music.
In the current issue, about 80 critics list their top picks, and Drifts and Shadows is listed at the top.
“Eley’s voice is warm and clean,” Estep said in a recent review. “He is definitely one of the best singers of English I’ve ever heard. Buy this record.”
Gregory Berg also praises the album in the November/December 2009 issue of Journal of Singing.
The CD is unusual in that it consists of American songs from the late 20th and early 21st century, featuring living composers who are writing in an old form, the art song. The genre dates back hundreds of years, and art songs written by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. These contemporary writers have provided Eley and Penna with a wide variety of moods, from the stormy “Drifts and Shadows: Blizzard” to the thoughtful “We Understand Each Other Perfectly.”
“It was very exciting because when I heard of the review I knew it was a very different kind of notice and I was very grateful,” Eley said.
Eley has been a professor of voice at Westminster since 1987 who enjoys a diverse career in opera, oratorio and recital, often in premieres of contemporary vocal music.
He has degrees from Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Penna echoed Eley’s sentiment about the attention the CD has received.
“It is a pleasure to be mentioned among such a community of distinguished work,” Penna said.
Penna has been an art song literature professor at Westminster since 1996. Prior to that he taught at Yale University School of Music, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival and the Bowdoin Chamber Music Festival, where he coordinated the Vocal Arts Program for three summers.
Drifts and Shadows is Eley’s first CD on which he sings every track solo. Eley is also featured on four other CDs that have been released in 2008 and 2009. Penna is the pianist on all of the tracks but three.
There are six composers on the CD: Tom Cipullo, David Eddleman, Daron Hagen, Martin Hennessey, Richard Hundley and Lee Hoiby.
The recording started in March 2007 for the tracks that had another pianist and the rest were recorded in August 2007. “Drifts and Shadows” is also the title of a contemporary American art song with lyrics from poems of known poets. Composed by Cipullo, it is the first song on the album.
“This project was organized by my dear friend Elem Eley as a testament to his many years of work with living composers,” Penna said.
The CD was a product of a summer fellowship that was granted from Westminster in the summer of 2007.
“The university has a very generous program for the faculty that allows us to do things like this,” Eley said.
Eley knows that this will not be his last CD and hopes to have the same success with the next one.
“I want to do my next CD in all German. I am hoping to work on it in the next few years when I am in Vienna,” he said. “I would like to record it in Austria.”
Both Penna and Eley are happy with the finished product of Drifts and Shadows as well as the recognition it has received.
“From a repertoire point of view the CD was a dream project — great music, great texts and a great singer,” Penna said.