Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano planned a triumphant return to Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) this week. Unfortunately, a truncated rehearsal period forced her to abandon the ambitious all-English recital program she had devised for the concert.
However, remnants of her original intent remained in the form of art songs by Samuel Barber and Jonathan Dove, now juxtaposed with familiar European cycles by Dvořák, Manuel de Falla, and Joseph Canteloube. The results were similarly mixed.
Love's labours lost
Johnson Cano’s English selections offered a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. Few would call Barber’s Three Songs, Op. 10 (1936), top-tier compositions; these setting of poems by James Joyce represent an early-career composer in a firmly imitative mode. But Johnson Cano took them seriously, and they were the program’s highlight.
Thematically linked by love and longing, Barber’s songs chart the anguish that accompanies an affair gone awry. Johnson Cano made this point vocally and dramatically. She toned her large, plush instrument down to almost a whisper in “Rain Has Fallen,” in which the speaker implores her lover to “come … where I may/speak to your heart.” Christopher Cano, her husband and pianist, ably dispatched the arpeggio-heavy accompaniment, which mimics the sound of rain hitting a glass panel.
The dramatic progression continued through “Sleep Now,” which gently describes a woman comforting her lover, and recognizing the nearing end of their affair: “The voice of the winter / is heard at the door.”
The concluding song, “I Hear an Army,” offered an aural feast, as Cano’s dynamic yet controlled piano summoned the sound of horses and the swelling of a triumphal march. The metaphor of an approaching battalion gave way to Johnson Cano’s final, painful entreaty: “My love, my love, why have you left me alone?” Rarely have these songs sounded so vital.
Needs a tune-up
Johnson Cano further displayed vocal intelligence and narrative ability in Jonathan Dove’s Three Tennyson Songs (2011), holding the audience rapt with the long, intricate narration of “The Sailor-Boy.” Her encore, the country ballad “Go ‘Way from My Window” by John Jacob Niles, showed an idiomatic understanding of American folk songs. The main disappointment of the English-language section was a grouping of three songs from West Side Story — “One Hand, One Heart,” “Somewhere,” and “I Have a Love” — which sounded bland and indistinguishable when separated from the context of the musical.
Surprisingly, Johnson Cano seemed on less stable footing in the familiar repertoire she added to the program. Three selections from Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne (Songs of the Auvergne), a multidecade cycle that highlights the country lifestyle and French-Spanish hybrid language of the Auvergne region, showed Cano’s dexterity at the piano. Songs frequently performed with full orchestral accompaniment retained texture in his hands. But Johnson Cano’s interpretations sounded overly polite, with little connection to the hearty, entendre-laden texts; her overuse of straight tone further caused a wavering pitch.
Strong Spanish diction complemented de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Popular Spanish Songs), but a similar lack of textual insight persisted. And if anyone cares to explain the decision to present Dvořák’s Gypsy Melodies in German translation rather than the original Czech, I’m all ears.
Johnson Cano possesses a Rolls-Royce of an instrument, but she’s still an artist in development. I hope some of her rougher edges will smooth out as she pursues a thriving international career.