A Nordic night

Lyric Fest presents ‘Songs from the Tundra’

3 minute read
Beautiful rendering of demanding literature: pianist Laura Ward and soprano Maeve Höglund. (Image courtesy of Lyric Fest.)
Beautiful rendering of demanding literature: pianist Laura Ward and soprano Maeve Höglund. (Image courtesy of Lyric Fest.)

When Lyric Fest planned Songs from the Tundra, they couldn’t have known that snow would accompany the evening. But at Saturday’s concert, the impending storm gave a sense of immediacy to the 25 vocal works spanning 900 years of singing.

Subtitled Nordic Song, the concert was aptly sited in the spare beauty of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill. The evening featured three first-rate soloists and the luminous a cappella singing of Variant 6, all grounded by the sensitive, intuitive piano collaboration of Lyric Fest co-artistic director Laura Ward.

Haunting, lustrous, dramatic, witty

The eclectic program was organized into 11 themed sections (Forest, Winter, Home, Lover, etc.), and it began with Variant 6 on high in the rear choir loft singing the haunting "Heyr himna smiður" (Hear Maker of the Heavens), a 13th-century Icelandic plainchant hymn (arranged by James Reese) that directly connected to the Gregorian chant tradition.

Each soloist had ample opportunity for both expressive and virtuosic singing. With her creamy pitch-dominant soprano, Maeve Höglund beautifully rendered demanding literature, especially "Sŧowik" (The Nightingale), a virtuosic showpiece by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). She also was tellingly effective in two Swedish works — "När du sluter mina ögon" (When you close my eyes) by Gunnar Fredrik de Frumerie (1908-1987) and "Tonera" (Tones) by Carl Sjöberg (1861-1900) — that ended the program on an intimate note.

Less vocally dominating, alto Maren Montalbano sang with warmth and expression that added luster to dramatic works like "Det syng" (The Song) by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and "Amidst Weeping," a fervent nationalistic polemic by Ukrainian Vadym Kipa (1912-1968). Montalbano was especially winning in the Moravian folk song "Přeletěl slavíček" (As Dreams Flew), by Norwegian composer Arne Dørumsgaard (1921-2006), which she sang in her own translation. The work also featured a beautiful piano introduction and interludes that Ward played with great élan.

Basso cantante Cody Müller sang with the required presence in the several majestic Russian works on the program, especially a moving rendition of "The Virgin in the City" from Songs of St. Petersburg by Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998). But he also gave a sly, witty performance as a drunkard in the rollicking — and surprisingly lusty — "Hulanka" (Bacchanal) by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), as well as a moving rendition of the lyrical "Draumalandiõ" (Landscape of My Heart) by Iceland’s Sigfús Einarsson (1877-1939), another work with evocative keyboard writing.

Virtuosic and adventurous voices: Variant 6. (Image courtesy of Lyric Fest.)
Virtuosic and adventurous voices: Variant 6. (Image courtesy of Lyric Fest.)

Many languages, universal power

All the artists sang in a dizzyingly impressive variety of Nordic languages: old and contemporary Icelandic, Russian, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, Latvian, Finnish, and Ukrainian (I think I got them all). But oddly discordant with the evening’s theme were four longish Exile Meditations by Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962). These contemporary works might have been inserted to showcase the perfectly calibrated and adventurous singing of Variant 6, but they tended to stop the flow of an otherwise smoothly cohesive program.

The evening closed with a peaceful section called Prayer that featured a shimmering Variant 6 rendition of another ancient Icelandic hymn, "Heyr pú oss himnium á" (Hear Us in Heaven) by Anna Thorvalsdottir (b. 1977), and the meditative Sjöberg work sung by Höglund.

Since 2003, Lyric Fest has been commissioning new work and producing thoughtful concerts that explore song and singing. In her opening remarks, artistic codirector Suzanne DuPlantis noted that a harsh, remote environment, with the ancient infused into the modern, speaks to us still. With the storm oncoming, this intriguing and wide-ranging evening of works from remote climes was a thoughtful reminder of the universal power of the voice for composers and listeners alike.

What, When, Where

Songs from the Tundra. an evening of Nordic song by 23 composers. Sung by Maeve Höglund, soprano; Maren Montalbano, alto; Cody Müller, bass; and Variant 6; with Laura Ward, piano. Lyric Fest. January 12, 2019, at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8855 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 438-1702 or lyricfest.org

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