Brave New Voices
A concert of vocal works by young composers, many of them Penn graduate students, shakes up the classical scene.
Karen Rile of Penn Gazette
October 28, 2011
A few years ago, Kanye West infamously proclaimed himself to be the "voice of this generation." Determined to prove otherwise, a couple of Penn graduate students, Tony Solitro Gr'14 and Scott Ordway Gr'14, recently put together a concert of new vocal works by young composers: "Voice of this Generation," which debuted this past September as part of the annual Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Over the summer Solitro and Ordway plastered Philadelphia's coolest hangouts with posters featuring a pair of luscious, disturbingly high-resolution singing lips. VOTG, as they called it, would be bold and sexy: an "anti-Kimmel Center" experience designed to reinvent the concept of a classical vocal recital. Pay what you want, dress how you like, and sip beer throughout the performance. "This ain't yo momma's lieder," they boasted.
But despite all the trash talk and provocative advertising, the audience that gathered for "Voice" seemed like a typical new-music crowd: earnest graduate students, supportive fellow musicians and composers, and even some Kimmel Center types, who arrived incognito in jeans and T-shirts. A few audience members cracked open brews and sipped, slouching uncomfortably against the straight-back pews of the cavernous old First Unitarian Church in Center City. Emcee Melissa Dunphy Gr'14 urged everyone to turn down cell-phones and other noise-makers. "However," she added, "if you feel the urge to Facebook or tweet about the music you're hearing, go ahead!"
Dressed up or down, "Voice of This Generation" turned out to be a rich and serious offering. As the recital unfolded, there was no sign of texting or tweeting. The evening was better than fun. The music, which demanded and received concentration, represented an impressive demonstration of the wealth of talent that Philadelphia's indie/classical vocal scene has to offer. Seven composers—all under 35, and most of them current PhD students in music composition at Penn—presented complex, text-driven solo vocal works, performed by superbly gifted vocalists and collaborative pianists.
The program opened with "Three Teasdale Songs" by Curtis composer Michael Djupstrom, followed by a setting of the Emily Dickinson poem "I Taste A Liquor Never Brewed" by Temple's Julia Alford-Fowler. The performances—by Philadelphia-based coloratura Jessica Lennick and mezzo Cynthia Cook, with Penn's Tim Ribchester Gr'12 at the piano—set a high bar for the rest of the program.
"Lullaby"—based on a bleak yet lyrical poem by Matt Thomas about the world's end (it morphs gracefully into a love poem)—was chosen by composer Andrew McPherson Gr'09 from a pile of anonymous poetry submissions during a Network for New Music project that paired composers and writers. The work was originally composed for baritone and chamber ensemble, and rescored for mezzo and piano for this performance. It was a striking adaptation, well suited to Cook's considerable gifts.
The world premiere of Solitro's "War Wedding" was the heftiest item on the program: a 25-minute song cycle set to a series of vivid, phantasmagoric poems by World War II Anglo-Welsh poet Alun Lewis. The cycle was commissioned and performed by lyric tenor Justin Vickers, who flew in from Illinois for the performance with his accompanist, R. Kent Cook. Vickers wore jeans and a flannel shirt in honor of the concert's come-as-you-are theme, but his regal bearing and crystalline projection of the often-lurid text belied any suggestion that this premiere was not a momentous occasion.
Ordway's darkly sensational "The Divine Madness of Vaslav Nijinsky" was the second world premiere of the evening, and even more heart-storming than "War Wedding." Disturbing, riveting, gorgeous, Orway's 12-minute song, with text drawn from Nijinksy's tortured memoir, dramatizes the dancer's descent into madness: "I am a Man. I am good, and not a beast. The scholars are the beasts. They are made of meat. They are death."
Ke-Chia Chen Gr'14's elegant setting of three Robert Frost poems, performed by Vickers and Cook, was a solid, moving piece that in itself would be weighty enough to anchor most recital programs.
The final work of the evening was "Tesla's Pigeon" (see sidebar), a new song cycle by the endlessly inventive Dunphy, whose smash-hit full-length oratorio The Gonzales Cantata rocked the 2009 Fringe Festival ["Arts," Mar|Apr 2010]. Performed by Lennick and Ribchester, "Tesla's Pigeon" concerns the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, who in his last, ruined years, fell in love with a white dove, whom he believed to have mystical knowledge. The songs are written from the point of view of the pigeon, an erudite bird who quotes Shakespeare's The Tempest, Goethe's Faust, and Serbian literature. Dunphy, who specializes in creating works that sound utterly weird in description (she is currently working on an opera about Ayn Rand) but make complete sense when performed, wrote the song with the gifted Lennick in mind, and indeed the part seems tailor-made for her talents. In the original concept of the piece (not executed during "Voices" for logistical reasons), Lennick was to perform wearing a giant set of wings created by Dunphy. It would have been a spectacular image, though hardly essential for the audience's astonishment during the fourth movement, which begins in the form of an African-American spiritual—and ends with Lennick transforming into a bird.
Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is remembered by some as the failed rival of Thomas Edison, despite his own major contributions to developments in the fields of electricity and electromagnetism in the early 20th century. Less known is his bizarre and tragic personal life, which included his belief in the correlation between genius and sexual abstinence, and an obsession with pigeons, which he used to feed on the streets of New York. In his late sixties, according to biographers, Tesla became fixated on a particular white pigeon who visited him daily, and whom (he told his friends) he loved "as a man loves a woman." One night, he claimed, the white pigeon flew in through an open window in his room on the 33rd floor of the Hotel New Yorker in midtown Manhattan.
"As I looked at her I knew she wanted to tell me—she was dying. And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes … a powerful, dazzling, blinding light … more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory." At that moment, Tesla reported, he realized that his life's work was finished—although in fact he lived on, in decline and poverty, feeding city pigeons, for 20 more years.
Dunphy, 31, wrote the Tesla song cycle last fall from the point of view of the pigeon, using text adapted from The Tempest to suggest a parallel between the pigeon's relationship with Tesla and Ariel's with Prospero. Also included are obscure passages (absent from most English translations, but which resonate perfectly in this setting) in the voice of Ariel from Goethe's Faust, letters from Tesla's frustrated human female admirers, and some Serbian text from an epic poem and a traditional folksong, coincidently pigeon-centric.
The CD, recorded just weeks before the VOTG concert, features the gifted soprano Jessica Lennick and Tim Ribchester Gr'12, Philadelphia's preeminent vocal collaborative pianist and a member of Penn's Critical Writing Program faculty. A slender, appealing offering—eight short tracks, totaling less than 20 minutes—the album showcases the synergy at the center of this project: pigeons, Prospero, two Ariels. It's a lovely, eccentric, and often electric confluence of metaphor and music.
Though the music is downloadable at Dunphy's website, it's worth getting the CD for the striking cover art by Robinson Smith.—K.R.