• Juliana Hall Song Cycles


    Bold Beauty: Songs of Juliana Hall
    Molly Fillmore, soprano.
    Elvia Puccinelli, piano.
    Blue Griffin Recording 559
    Total Time:  61:22
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Molly Fillmore debuted in the Met Opera’s latest Ring cycle and continued on to engagements throughout the US, at the Spoleto Festival, and with the Cologne Opera as well.  Her recital here focuses on four song cycles by prolific composer Juliana Hall.  Hall studied with Leon Kirchner and Frederick Rzewski, but it is her las teacher, Dominick Argento, who seems to cast a shadow over the style of vocal writing and harmonic exploration that appears in the three earlier pieces from this collection.

    The opening Letters from Edna (1993) is a beautiful setting of eight letters the poet wrote to family, friends and others and here they have a theatrical quality.  The carefully chosen letters provide a window into the artist’s emotional connections and thoughts.  Musically, Hall uses often rich, touching harmonic language creating a Neo-Romantic atmosphere against the lyrical vocal writing.  There are some more chromatic dissonant passages to address some of the more intense texts.  With some 60 art song cycles to her credit, this release gives listeners a chance to hear her first foray into the genre in Syllables of Velvet, Syllables of Plush (1989).  Letters by Emily Dickinson are the focus of this set of seven songs and provide a window into Hall’s musical language near the beginning of her career.  In Theme in Yellow (1990) is another of these earlier cycles and here Hall pulls together a collection of six poems by Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Carl Sandburg.  These are arranged around the Autumn season with reflections on “Ripe Corn” and “Harvest Gold”.  It is set for mezzo-soprano which would equally lend the sound of the music a warmer quality.  The final work on the album is the more recent Cameos (2018) commissioned by Fillmore.  She also provided the texts for this cycle which explores the work of six female painters whose work seems to also lie at the heart of Hall’s inspiration.  The piece makes for a fine conclusion to this collection, and one suspects a concert performance would include projected images of the works for this piece—though there is no art in the accompanying booklet.

    BGR’s recording perfectly captured a natural sound that images the singer well in the sound picture.  The booklet includes fine notes and complete texts.  Fillmore has a gorgeous, clear voice and a good dramatic quality that makes these songs connect well with the listener.  Elvia Puccinelli proves to be an excellent accompanist here adding additional dramatic flair, but also finding the subtleties in the music where needed.  This makes for a really engrossing collection of music for those interested in the development of the art song.


  • Chamber Opera Premiere: Driving While Black


    dwb (driving while black)
    Roberta Gumbel, soprano.
    New Morse Code: Hannah Collins, cello.
    Michael Compitello, percussion
    Albany Records TROY1858
    Total Time:  46:00
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Appearing at a most timely manner, the new chamber opera driving while black receives its premiere recording here from Albany Records.  The work is a collaboration between soprano Roberta Gumbel, who provided the libretto, and composer Susan Kander.  Gumbel drew on her own experience and concerns for her own son and the opera weaves together a central story that focuses on a boy that grows from birth to his teen years.  As he is ready to take on the freedom of being able to drive, the anxiety begins to build in the Mother’s character.  The story shifts from the personal to more external contemplation on society and uses the symbol of a car to represent both this shared experience and potentially dangerous space.  The scenes are “announced” to help keep the flow of the work and borrows a bit from performance art.  Gumbel’s performance highlights her ability to create specific characters in the story.  She has a rather rich tone that shines in those moments of reflection and lyrical writing.

    Kander’s music explores some interesting timbres between the solo cello and a reliance on vibraphone.  There are additional intriguing instruments as well (toy piano, tambourine) that add to the flavor of the music and there is even one segment where sounds are created entirely on the human body.  This puts the instrumentalists in a position of being both equal interactive participants as the story unfolds but also can move them into a place of witnessing the drama as well.  The opening prelude has some interesting jagged material that shifts into beautiful lyric lines as the Mother contemplates her newborn son.  The scenes continue to show different moments of racism, both subtle and overt.  Kander adds some extra rhythmic punches that feel a bit ironic at times (a musical cue of what is often a disturbing, or unfunny “punchline” that reflects on our own presuppositions).  The style recalls the work of George Crumb but in a more tonal universe where lyricism keeps us more rooted in tonality.  Dramatically, it also manages to add a deeper poignancy to the plight of the Mother and a chance to reflect on our own place and contribution systemically to the issues the libretto explores.

    driving while black was supposed to be premiered last March (2020) in New York but that was cancelled as everything shut down due to the pandemic.  Soon after, the director of the Baruch Performing Arts Center where the premiere was scheduled proposed the possibility of a video recording of the work.  With the limited forces needed to perform the piece, it would be relatively safe to practice the social distancing needed to perform and record the work.  This was then presented digitally on October 23, 2020, and subsequently over a ten-day period.  The present recording was made last August.

    The accompanying booklet includes an overview and the libretto as well to follow along with as a courtesy, but the diction is quite clear.  Each section has its own track and one can easily follow along using just the back of the album casing.  There were many moments here when this work was reminiscent of Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970).  It is almost like we now have a fine companion work that provides a voice of our own children crying out to an experience that has finally been brought into the light.  Certainly, dwb is an interesting work to check out based on its theme and contemporary thematic content.