Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and pianist Nadia Shpachenko performed original works by George Gianopoulos, Yuri Ishchenko, and Christian Carey, as well as a solo vocal piece by John Cage, at a new music recital titled The Truth in Simple Things at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale on Saturday. The weekend audience made its way into the cavernous sanctuary of St. Mark’s and settled comfortably into the long wooden pews.
Based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Three Songs of Shattering for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano, Op. 18 (2009/2013) by George N. Gianopoulos opened the program. The first movement, No. 1: The First Rose…, began with a haunting piano phrase and a strong vocal entrance by Ms. Ihnen that filled the large sanctuary space. There is a somber feeling in this music, aided by a trace of the blues in the piano accompaniment. Ms. Ihnen’s rich mezzo voice was powerful enough to be heard everywhere in the audience without a microphone or amplification – but the spaciously resonant hall tended to swallow up the words of the text. Even so, the smoothly strong vocal lines, offset by Ms. Shpachenko’s active piano passages, produced a finely balanced combination.
The brighter, jazzy feel of No. 2: Let the Little Birds Sing… included some lovely vocals in a high register that went soaring lightly over the piano line. Expressive and playful, this movement prompted a spontaneous round of applause as it concluded. No. 3: All the Dogwood Blossoms… began with powerfully dramatic chords in the piano and tightly drawn vocal phrasing that dialed up the tension. Forceful singing, blending nicely with an intricate piano accompaniment, went weaving in and out of the texture, adding some drama. A powerful crescendo from both performers filled up the hall and then pulled back slightly, enhancing the strong finish. The audience greeted Three Songs of Shattering with sustained applause.
A second Gianopoulos song cycle, this one based on the poetry of Sara Teasdale, followed. I. Dawn, the first movement of City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) Op. 29 (2013), began with a solemn vocal line and a bustling piano accompaniment, similar in character to the first Gianopoulos piece. Strong, declarative lyrics followed, with further flourishes in the piano as if the rising sun were still over the horizon, a power more sensed than felt. A more relaxed II. Dusk featured an overarching vocal melody that soared smoothly upward, filling the big sanctuary space with sound. Ms. Ihnen’s power and range were on full display here and quite effective. III. Rain at Night gave a more cautious and tentative feel, especially in the piano, while nicely shaped vocal phrasings added to a sense of uncertainty. This movement captures the generally mixed feelings Southern Californians have about rain at night – especially on the freeways. City Vignettes for Mezzo-Soprano and Guitar (or Piano) further validates Gianopoulos’ pragmatic style of assigning technical embellishments to the piano, freeing Ms. Ihnen’s robust voice to rise impressively upwards, filling the space above the audience.
Piano Sonata No. 6 (2005), by Yuri Ishchenko began with a Fantasia. Its strong opening and quietly mysterious melody made for a gloomy feeling. A bit of agitation animated the texture, leading up to a series of resounding chords. This pattern of quiet tension followed by increasingly anxious passages continued, especially in the lower registers where deep rumblings added a sense of menace. A marvelous Ukranian bleakness poured grimly out of the keyboard under Ms. Shpachenko’s steady hands. The dynamics and tempo increased just as the texture thickened, the notes rushing out into the audience like a dark, flowing torrent. A very rapid run upward and a solemnly quiet chord at the finish carried Fantasia to its conclusion.
The second movement, Imperativo, arrived with a bright, almost waltz-like tempo invoking a feeling that is both decisive and purposeful. The active phrasing, while often complex, never felt timid or nervous. The precise and nuanced playing impressed, especially in the quieter stretches, and a hint of Prokofiev lyricism emerged in the melodies. A new line in the lower register rose up in a complex wave, making its way through the middle piano keys and accelerated to an almost fugue-like intricacy. This is engaging music, aided by the expressive passages and a profusion of notes that roared outward at the conclusion. The final movement, Epilogo, proved much more subdued, with tentative notes and a vague feeling of uncertainty. Although brief and fittingly restrained, this movement contrasted perfectly with the preceding fireworks. As the last notes died away, much cheering and applause arose for this most energetic performance
Aria by John Cage followed, a solo piece for voice. Ms. Ihnen explained that the score is fashioned from graphical notation with symbols, shapes and colors employed to indicate the vocal line. Aria began quietly, with a combination of musical notes and vocalese. Various languages comprised the text, the words mixing with sharp, spiky sounds and smoothly soaring musical notes. Hand clapping and breathy sounds scattered among the musical tones added to the variety. The dynamics and tempo frequently changed, often without notice, but skillful execution by Ms. Ihnen made for a graceful flow. The constant need to fit the various sound fragments into some sort of context proved challenging, and the sequences came as from a dream. Aria follows the philosophy of other Cage pieces – music is present everything we hear, as part of a continuous spectrum of sound experience.
Kenyon Songs, by Christian Carey followed, three pieces based on the poetry of Jane Kenyon and completed between 2007 and 2009. Song opened with soft chords and a simple melody in the piano. A settled, nostalgic feeling came through and the quiet lyrics spoke of the familiar and the mundane: “An oriole sings from the hedge, and in the hotel kitchen the chef sweetens cream for the pastries…” Subdued and straightforward phrasing in the vocals sustained a pleasant wistfulness. A bit of tension crept in as the lyrics turned to some threatening weather: “Far off lightening and thunder agree to join us for a few days down in the valley…” The vocals became stronger, but never evoked even a hint of menace in this charmingly peaceful portrait. Next was Otherwise, and the smoothly graceful opening extended the sense of serenity. Homespun lyrics persisted: “I ate cereal, sweet milk, flawless peach, it might have been otherwise” – that last phrase introducing just the slightest uncertainty, echoed in the piano line. More singing of benign, everyday activities followed, each phrase ending with “…it might have been otherwise.” The final line: “But one day I know it will be otherwise.” forcefully drove home the point of the poem. The carefully modulated vocals and accompaniment perfectly matched the intentions in the text. As Otherwise concluded the feeling turned poignant, reflecting the sense of impending loss.
Let Evening Come completed Carey’s song cycle. This brought a warmer feeling combined with a sense of completion – a welcome to the end of the day. The declarative phrasing in the voice added a bit of purpose, echoed from the text “To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats. to the air in the lung – let evening come.” Kenyon Songs celebrates those small, prosaic parts of life that so often bring great contentment; the music and the nuanced performances capturing this exactly.
The final piece on the program was Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano, Op. 7 (2007/2010) – another song cycle by Gianopoulos. Based on texts by Dorothy Parker this consisted of three sections: I. Little Words, II. One Perfect Rose and III. Purposely Ungrammatical Love Song. A breezy, Manhattan feel that combines the wit and energy of Ms. Parker’s prose with a Broadway sensibility permeates all these pieces. The carefully balanced piano and vocal passages occasionally contained some impressive flash from the keyboard. The final section featured a nicely syncopated melody in the vocals joined with a light, swinging feel that animates the accompaniment. Three Songs for [Mezzo] Soprano & Piano perfectly expresses the elegant urban sophistication of New York at its height.