Review: Memorable performances highlight Colburn SongFest program

Music Critic

It may take a while for Mary Magdalene to catch up in song with the Mary music history knows so much better. But thus far, this has been the year of the other Mary. The Los Angeles Philharmonic mounted a production of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. San Francisco Opera premiered Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.”

Along with those West Coast Mary Magdalenes, Libby Larsen’s “The Magdalene” for soprano and piano had its premiere in Texas, and Friday night it came our way. Written for soprano and piano, it opened a SongFest program devoted mostly to Larsen at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. There’s more, though. The evening also included a glorious new piece by the animated Bay Area composer Gabriela Lena Frank for two singers and piano. One of those singers happened to be mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, who had been Adams’ intensely dramatic Mary Magdalene across the street at Disney in the spring.

Larsen’s “Magdalene” is a 13-minute monologue in which Mary describes the redemption of a female deity known as Sophia. The printed text, though, was not meant to be the point on Friday, since the hall was darkened for dramatic effect and intelligibility, beginning with the production of consonants, did not appear a priority to composer or performer.

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But if little could be understood (even when, once or twice a few lines of text were projected for further dramatic effect), Clarissa Lyons’ luxuriant large soprano made much of Mary’s liquid vocal lines full of Middle Eastern melisma, while Leann Osterkamp achieved the desired flashiness for the piano accompaniment. I would have thought that seduction was part of the plan. In fact, Magdalene’s text extols the anguish of abuse as the price for radiance.

Frank’s “Honey, the first song of a projected song cycle, “Cantos de la Cocina” (Songs of the Kitchen) went for another kind of radiance. Commissioned by SongFest and written for O’Connor and soprano Jessica Rivera with a text by playwright Nil Cruz, it is a dialogue, affectionately barbed and wonderfully affecting, about a jar of spilled honey and a mother/daughter relationship that won’t allow for spilled dreams.

And if there is vocal music that mimics the viscous sweetness, the fragrance and headiness of honey, this is it. In L.A., we’ve been able to watch both Rivera and O’Connor blossom from students into I suspect two of the most able and astonishing young singers of their generation. They here expressed both the said and the unsaid that are essential in all loving relationships.

Frank particularly relished an intoxicating acoustic phenomenon these singers can produce singing together, where they seem to amplify each other’s voice, causing the whole hall and everyone in it to vibrate on their intersecting wavelengths. Raqel Gorgojo was the fine pianist. Frank, a composer who is herself coming of age, has begun something special here.

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The rest of the evening involved the coming and going of many singers and pianists in various Larsen song cycles, all but one for women and concerning love and/or loss. The cycle for baritone, however, concerned murder.

In “The Peculiar Case of H.H. Holmes,” Larsen enters into the head of Herman Webster Mudgett, a 19th-century Chicagoan who built a hotel in which he killed his guests. The score may not precisely penetrate the psychology of the macabre, but Michael Kelly (who was accompanied by Pierre-André Doucet) proved a fairly seductive Mudgett. That was apparently the point. Elsewhere there were Larsen songs serious and light. The composer almost always put the voice first, urging on voluptuous singing, and that was most effective in mezzo-soprano Loralee Songer’s performances of the cycle “Love after 1950,” slightly humorous songs about stolen kisses, makeup, moonlight and magic in the era of “Mad Men.”

The somber final cycle, “Sifting Through the Ruins,” written for mezzo Suzanne Mentzer and violist James Dunham with Liza Stepanova as Friday’s pianist, sifts through the detritus of 9/11. Larsen cannot here escape the maudlin, but since the music was meant as a memorial, she’s allowed.


Even so, pass the honey.


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