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Brooklyn Art Song Society: New Voices – The New American Art Song

Posted on: May 14th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Brooklyn Art Song Society is the brainchild of Michael Brofman.  It’s been around for five years, but last night was the first time I was actually able to clear my calendar and head over to Brooklyn to attend one of their concerts.  I had been invited by composer Glen Roven to help celebrate the release of a new Naxos recording that includes his song cycle, The Vineyard Songs.  I had been present over a year ago at a concert in Manhattan when the piece was given its world premiere, with the same performers who were to give it last night: soprano Laura Strickling and pianist Michael Brofman.  As I had expressed eagerness to hear it again, I cleared my calendar and showed up at South Oxford Space, a performance space a few blocks away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  (I had previously attended a concert there a few years ago that was presented by Five Boroughs Music Festival.)

First a comment about the performing space: The second floor at South Oxford Space (138 S. Oxford Street) is a small concert hall, rectangular with a stage at one end.  But the stage was not used on this occasion.  Instead, the piano was located along the long side of the rectangle with folding chairs spread out facing it.  The acoustics are good, but actually the room is a bit small to accommodate the sound of the piano and singers with operatic-size voices, so much of the time the music was very loud, sometimes oppressively so, and the piano was extremely loud in relation to the voices.  I think that lowering the piano lid to half-mast might have helped with the balances.  This didn’t detract unduly from my enjoyment of the concert, but I think if they use this space again they should think more about balances in light of the size of the room.

That out of the way, I found the entire concert fascinating.

In the program flyer, Brofman describes his organization as “dedicated to the vast repertoire of poetry set to music.”  That means he will NEVER run out of interesting new pieces to present!!  We are actually experiencing a great flowering of new art song in America from numerous young (and not-so-young) composers who are busily enjoying the “new” dispensation to write music people will want to hear.  I say that advisedly.  When I was a student, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, concert music was largely consumed by striving to write music that most ordinary concert-goers would not even recognize as music: no discernible melody, atonal and serial harmony, and a pervasive “grey” quality to everything, buried under a haze of rhythmic complexity.  Although Milton Babbitt didn’t actually say it, a headline writer for High Fidelity magazine summed it up nicely for an article about his work: “Who Cares If You Listen?”  But even at that time, the seeds of a counterrevolution were starting to take root, as the Minimalists were emerging, their music generally well rooted in tonality, and some of the ultra-modernists were rediscovering tonality – Exhibit A was probably George Rochberg.  By the 1990s, the concert music world was once again dominated by tonal composition and a concern for melody and its developments was becoming prominent as a new burst of Romanticism emerged.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the field of American art song, building on the heroic earlier accomplishments of such composers as Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem (and the grandfather of them all, Charles Ives).   Barber and Rorem had been looked down upon by the serialists as “old fashioned.”  It is a source of some regret that Barber didn’t live to see the revival of his music, but happily Rorem is still with us. . .

Every work heard last night seemed to be concerned with communicating, vividly, with an eager audience.  None of these composers could be accused of not caring whether the audience bothered to listen.  Indeed, their songs were all well-crafted to draw the listener into a sound world where words and music combined to enchant the listener, to put the listener under the spell of the composer and the poet, to grip the emotions and produce that collective intake of breath at the peak moments and the gratified murmur at the end.

Last night’s composers, all living and very productive, were Michael Djupstrom, Herschel Garfein, James Kallembach, James Matheson, and Glen Roven.  All except Matheson were present to receive the appreciative applause of the audience, well-deserved.  Baritone Kyle Oliver sang Djupstrom’s “Oars in Water.”  Elisabeth Marshall sang Garfein’s “Two Stoppard Songs” and Kallembach’s “Four Romantic Songs,” and Laura Strickling sang Matheson’s “From Times Alone” and Roven’s “The Vineyard Songs.”  All the performers were excellent in their own individual way, and not one of the songs was less then totally absorbing.  I was hearing everything except the Roven cycle for the first time, but all of this music was so listener-friendly that I found no difficulty in appreciating and enjoying it all.  Michael Brofman’s collaboration at the piano was sterling, and I will be eager to hear his work again during BASS’s next season.  I also hope to hear more of all of these singers, each of whom really knows how to “put over” a song!

According to an announcement in the program, the opening night for next season will be on September 18.  The theme for the season will be British songs, and music by John Dowland and Henry Purcell will make up the first program.  There will be lute songs as well as songs with piano accompaniment.  The location will be the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church which, contrary to the name, bears a S. Oxford Street address.  Check out the Brooklyn Art Song Society website for details.

In the meantime, I would encourage anybody interested in American art song to consider acquiring the new Naxos CD whose release was celebrated last night.  It contains performances of many of the works on last night’s program, with many of the same performers.  I’ve already ordered it, and will add a postscript to this blog posting after I’ve received my copy and had a chance to listen.