Lyric Fest’s season opener ended with a new arrangement of Daron Hagen’s 2014 setting of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” Hagen created the arrangement for this event and it made a perfect finale for the concert’s take on the United States and its songs. Every voice in the quartet sang something different but they stayed in harmony and created a “celebration of diversity” that sounded like a real celebration.
Lyric Fest’s outings contain so many items — 22 in this case — that no review can capture all their liveliness and variety. The six songs that concluded the first half of this program are a good example of the general impact of the whole event. The segment started with the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” and followed it with a George Crumb setting of a Walt Whitman text; a tenor arrangement of “Over the Rainbow”; Lee Hoiby’s setting of Emma Lazarus’s excerpted sonnet “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty; an audience participation interlude with everybody singing different parts of a shape note arrangement of “Wondrous Love”; and a rousing, gospelly spiritual, “Walk Together Children.”
Classic meets unconventional
The George Crumb, needless to say, involved some inventive shenanigans with the piano. Lyric Fest’s accompanist, Laura Ward, had to play the keyboard with one hand while she leaned over the piano and plucked its strings with the other. Like all of Crumb’s unconventional approaches, the simultaneous plucking and keyboarding produced an effect that was worth the effort. The two sounds evoked a perfect image of flowing water.
In other parts of the program, you could have heard things like a moving WWII “Ballad of the Bombardier”; a Charles Ives cowboy saga; and Ned Rorem’s beautiful arrangement of “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.”
There were two other premieres on the program besides the arrangement of “I Hear America Singing.” The concert opened with an equally exuberant arrangement of the Baptist hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Philadelphia composer John Conahan turned it into a more inclusive song by revising the words and eliminating the religious references. I wasn’t familiar with the hymn (perhaps because my father was a Southern Baptist), and Conahan did such a good job I couldn’t detect any of the awkwardness I hear in a lot of socially conscious revisions.
Small following, great glory
The other premiere was composer and Broad Street Review contributor Kile Smith’s setting of a short, mystical text by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “There is no great and no small.” Smith gave it a setting, for piano and mezzo-soprano, that was as light and sustaining as water.
The vocalists for the occasion were soprano Michelle Johnson, tenor Tony Boutté, baritone Troy Cook, and Lyric Fest’s co-artistic director, mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis. I hadn’t heard the first three before but they all have impressive international resumes and voices to match. Suzanne DuPlantis is an art song enthusiast who takes the texts of her songs very seriously, and her companions sounded like they’d absorbed the same artistic philosophy.
Lyric Fest is now beginning its 14th season. Art song is probably the classical music genre with the smallest following and Lyric Fest’s first programs made it clear they wanted to show people what they were missing. Lyric Fest’s quirky, unpredictable, beautifully executed programs have become one of the glories of my life.
What, When, Where
I Hear America Singing. Songs by Ives, Barber, Carter. Smith, et al. Michelle Johnson, soprano. Suzanne DuPlantis, mezzo-soprano. Tony Boutté, tenor. Troy Cook, baritone. Laura Ward, piano. Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward, Artistic Directors. Oct. 9, 2016 at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce St., Philadelphia. (215) 438-1702 or lyricfest.org.