We now know that more than 100 chemical elements exist, but so do the four elements postulated by Greek philosophers. Air, earth, fire, and water may not be as fundamental as hydrogen and plutonium, but they still shape life on Earth. Lyric Fest’s concert devoted to songs about the original four created a musical dialogue about the natural world and its role in our lives. It even included a tune about invasive aquatic species.
The program opened with a song that captured the concert's musical and thematic tone: Aaron Copland’s setting of an Emily Dickinson poem, “There Came a Wind Like a Bugle.” Mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and pianist Laura Ward harnessed all the frenzy built into music portraying a wind that made “the bell within the steeple wild.” The song's final line replaced the tumult with a message that underlay the entire program: “How much can come, and much can go, and yet abide the world?”
Like all Lyric Fest events, the program contained so many items no review can cover them all. Subjects included apple trees, the pleasures of rural life, the fascination of the sea, the sound of a wind harp, and three epitaphs (graves being associated with Earth). The lineup’s 21 songs were distributed among four appealing young vocalists. Soprano Meryl Dominguez and tenor Jonas Hacker are both Academy of Vocal Arts resident artists. Sutherland and baritone John Moore have been around longer and possess formidable bios, with entries like Moore’s role as the male lead in Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere of Breaking the Waves.
The program’s two premieres each contained groups of four songs. Philadelphia composer Michael Djupstrom introduced his foursome, Oars in the Water, by noting that it began with the oddest commission he's ever received: the 2014 Lake George Music Festival asked him for an art song on the subject of, yes, invasive aquatic species.
Djupstrom responded like a pro and asked Philadelphia poet Jeanne Minahan for a poem he could set to music. She was just as bemused, but wrote one; he set it to music, then responded to this Lyric Fest commission by adding three more songs based on Minahan's poems.
Minahan wisely avoided a diatribe about the evils of introducing new species into lakes and rivers. Instead, she produced a poem lauding boating and the other joys people lose when lakes die. The three new poems included a seascape and an elegy built around the metaphor of the friendly hand that helps you into the boat “just before you go.” Djupstrom gave them all musical settings for piano and mezzo, enhancing their emotional impact.
The other premiere, John Musto’s Be Music, Night, got a good reading from Dominguez but needed more variety. Its high point was a bluesy setting of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Baby Song of the Four Winds.” The other three all sounded alike, stylistically and emotionally.
In his comments introducing his first song, Jonas Hacker said he likes singing Schubert’s songs because the piano accompaniments make you feel things, like the motion of the waves. He touched on a basic truth about most songs composed in the classical tradition. The piano part rarely acts as just an accompaniment; pianist pairs fully with singer, creating many of the composer’s most telling effects. We have a natural tendency to focus on singers, but on a Lyric Fest program it’s important to follow both partners.
That kind of keyboard work demands a pianist who can turn a piano into a full orchestra. Ward, Lyric Fest’s co-director, is a master of the art and one of the primary reasons Lyric Fest wins must-see status on my personal music schedule.
The concert ended with a spectacular example of full partnership, Rachmaninoff’s Spring Waters. Hacker sang a show-stopping, room-filling aria in the grand operatic tradition, while Ward hammered out an equally show-stopping, room-filling passage. And they did it in the same room. At the same time.
What, When, Where
It’s Elemental: Songs about Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. By Schubert, Mozart, Copland, Britten, Faure. Rachmaninoff, Britten, Mahler, et al. Meryl Dominguez, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo-soprano; Jonas Hacker, tenor; John Moore, baritone; Laura Ward, piano. Laura Ward, Suzanne DuPlantis, artistic directors. Lyric Fest. April 2, 2017, at the Academy of Vocal Arts, 1920 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. (215) 438-1702 or lyricfest.org.