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REVIEW: Promising debut for Art Song Festival
Who: The Gatsby Theatre Company
What: A festival featuring five vocal soloists, two pianists and three concerts with a concluding master class given by Martile Rowland, artistic director of the Opera Theatre of the Rockies
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Various locations in Colorado Springs
Tickets: $15, $10 students; gatsbytheatrecompany.com or at the door
Next: 'Songs of Germany' presented Friday at Shove Chapel at Colorado College
1010 N. Nevada Ave.
Something else: There will be pre-concert lectures for the two remaining concerts beginning at 6:45 p.m.
In her pre-concert lecture, soprano Martile Rowland said it straight: Performers of classical music's art songs have nothing to hide behind. They are essentially naked before their audience. With this and some historical context in mind, the first ever "Gatsby Art Song Festival" kicked-off its first of four presentations last night in the main chapel at Grace Church.
This form, which sets poetry to music, is the filet of classical vocal expression. While lacking the popular appeal of the opera, it challenges everyone -- singer, pianist and audience -- to achieve a level of concentration and focus rarely found in any of the arts. In Thursday night's all-French program, three singers and pianist Daniel Brink provided ample opportunity to revel in the genius of the poetry, music and theatricality that comprise the art song experience.
Soprano Judeth Shay Burns began the evening with "Banalités," a short cycle of songs by Francis Poulenc inspired by the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. Mostly modern in their temperament, there is nonetheless a current of restrained romanticsm that runs through these five songs. It was in this aspect that Shay Burns performance shone.
She is a dramatic performer with a large voice to match. Matched with this highly-reverberant space, Shay Burns was unable to reign in her sound and theatricality enough to produce the intimate experience that Poulenc intended. Her interpretation of the short song "Hotel" was just right. Her beautiful lyric soprano revelled in its long melodic lines.
Brian Harris, the driving force behind organizers Gatsby Theatre Company, next offered five songs by Reynaldo Hahn. His light and lyric tenor voice and gentle presence meshed perfectly with the performing space and the composer's heart-felt expression. Except for a vocal misstep in the well-known "L'Heure exquise," Harris' performance captured the essence of the art form.
Gabriel Fauré is often considered the greatest of French song composers. It was an interesting choice to have a virtually unknown Faure song cycle to complete the evening. Soprano Marisa Walsh took on "La chanson d'Éve," 10 songs adapted from the symbolist poetry of Charles van Lerberghe. These are indeed poems that look in on the Bible's first woman. The imagery is sensual and spiritually rich.
Walsh had all the tools to tell this charming story: a beautiful voice able to almost unconsciously float on high; a humble countenance to compliment Eve's character; and the intellectual understanding of what poet and composer were trying to project. But the sum of the parts fell short of the whole. The performance was undermined by her distracting use of printed music and by the few occasions when she was required to reach the very top of her vocal register. At those moments, her sound was noticeably pinched. She also failed to make a dramatic distinction when portraying Eve and when the poetry was in a narrative mode.
Art song remains mostly a connoisseur's obsession. There was a very sparse audience for the festival's opening concert. This was unfortunate because Rowland's introduction combined with the strong work of the singers and the always aesthetically engaging playing of Daniel Brink combined for a superior experience. This format is an ideal way to explore an art form that is full of riches.