American Art Song Today-Alive! : Songs by MUSTO, DIEMER, LARSEN, TURRIN, R.P. THOMAS, R. LANE, SUITS, & HAGEN.

AMERICAN ART SONG TODAY—ALIVE! – Anne Marie Church (sop); Linda Sweetman-Waters (pn) – JOSARA JR 001CD (63:16)

MUSTO: Shadow of the Blues. DIEMER: Four Chinese Love Poems. LARSEN: Songs from Letters. TURRIN: Twelve Haiku Songs. R. P. THOMAS: The Ballad of the Boy Who Went to Sea. R. LANE: Affirmation(exc’pts). SUITS: Joyce Songs (exc’pts). HAGEN: Echo’s Songs (exc’pts);Love Songs (exc’pts).

This new release is the outgrowth of what appears to be a most worthwhile programming concept: a “package” addressed to the general listener that features art songs by living American composers, presented by soprano Anne Marie Church and pianist Linda Sweetman-Waters, both of whom are based in New Jersey. The accompanying promotional material, complete with flyer, photos, press release, et al., extols the art song recital as a potentially vibrant and exciting entertainment experience, and boasts of great success in touring with this “package” here and abroad since 1993. In the words of Ms. Church, “American song can touch our lives and transport us to yet another life, another place, a frame of mind, a scene of indescribable beauty.”

As an enthusiastic devotee of the American art song repertoire, I am wholly in sympathy with such an effort, but the packaging led me to anticipate with some apprehension a degree of “dumbing down” of the material in order to appeal to audiences who would ordinarily shy away from such a recital. However, the result proves to be just the opposite: a rather conventional program that I suspect will appeal largely to others already interested in the genre, featuring attractive readings of recent and unfamiliar songs, most of which fall generally within the post-Barber/Rorem aesthetic. Some of the selections are quite attractive and memorable, others less so. Once I re-oriented my expectations, I found the disc reasonably enjoyable, but was left with the thought that what I had originally expected– a really “crowd-pleasing” recital of American art songs–wouldn’t be a bad idea, although it would probably mean abandoning the “living composers” concept, in order to broaden the universe of choices to include composers of the recent past.

In any case, to return to what we do have: All the music chosen for inclusion is, at the least, sincere in aspiration and competent in construction. Most impressive is John Musto’s Shadow of the Blues, four songs of exquisite subtlety and sensitivity set to texts by Langston Hughes. Also encouraging further exploration are three lovely samples from Paul Suits’s Joyce Songs, the three songs by Daron Hagen, and Emma Lou Diemer’s Four Chinese Love Poems. The selections from veteran composer Richard Lane’s Affirmation are notably old-fashioned in their luxuriantly romantic lyricism, relative to the other items on the program. Less appealing to me are Richard Pearson Thomas’s folk-like setting of a typical Anglo-Irish ballad, and Joseph Turrin’s twelve spare and rather austere though gracefully crafted haiku settings. Most disappointing are Libby Larsen’s settings of presumably authentic letters written by American frontier entertainer Calamity Jane to her daughter. The letters offer fascinating and heart-breaking insights into the inner life of the real human being behind the familiar stage-name. Unfortunately, the accompanying music is uninteresting, stylistically incongruous, and offers nothing at all to enlarge or further illuminate the texts.

As suggested earlier, this recital is likely to present a considerable challenge to listeners whose attention spans have been conditioned by the demands of popular entertainment. The promotional material repeatedly refers to performances with “a touch of cabaret” and emphasizes the great variety of contrasting styles that are included. But the recording doesn’t really support that claim. On the other hand, connoisseurs will be happy to discover quite a few worthwhile recent and unfamiliar additions to the repertoire, although such listeners may be frustrated by the inclusion of so many incomplete cycles, and the paucity of information on the composers.