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The present reflects on the past in the latest Jarring Sounds recital program

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Last night in the Chapel of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, the Tangents Contemporary Guitar recital series presented the Jarring Sounds duo of mezzo Danielle Reutter-Harrah and Adam Cockerham performing on both guitar and lute. The most contemporary work on the program was the world premiere of settings of three poems by Paul Verlaine composed by Renaud Côté-Giguère, Cockerham’s former fellow student in the Guitar Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The poems themselves were written between 1866 and 1886. These were forward-looking approaches to poetry for their time, matched by Côté-Giguère’s selection of modernist tropes involving both rhythm and harmony. Verlaine’s modernism was further underscored by choosing to precede these songs with settings of pastoral texts popular at the beginning of seventeenth century by three French composers of that time, Pierre Guédron, Antoine Boësset, and Gabriel Bataille.

An alternative modernism emerged through Benjamin Britten’s Opus 58 settings of six classic Chinese texts translated into English by Arthur Waley for his 1946 book Chinese Poems. These were composed in 1957 after Britten had completed his Opus 57 score for the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, in which he experimented with a variety of different Oriental styles for both sonorities and melodic content. Particularly striking is “The Old Lute,” which mourns the lack of interest in music from earlier generations. We thus have Britten’s modernist setting of Waley’s contemporary language rendering of an ancient text mourning the passing of an even more ancient tradition.

The major work on the second half of the program was Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers. True to its title, this is a cycle of seven songs setting prose texts from the correspondence of seven of the major “voices” in music history. The ordering of the settings is as follows:

  1. Frédéric Chopin
  2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  3. Franz Schubert
  4. Johann Sebastian Bach
  5. Claude Debussy
  6. Giacomo Puccini
  7. Robert Schumann

The texts are highly diverse, not only in writing style but also in choice of topic. We thus have Bach complaining about not getting paid, Mozart rationalizing having lost a position, Schumann bubbling over in his love for Clara, and Puccini venting his disgust for the city of Paris. Argento was particularly skilled in capturing a difference sense of character in each song (as has also been noted in his handling of the diverse personalities in his “Postcard from Morocco” opera).

The cycle was introduced by the songs of two of his letter-writing composers, both setting poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Schäfers Klagelied” (the shepherd’s sad song) by Schubert (D. 121) and “Das Veilchen” by Mozart (K. 476). As in the first half of the program, these two pastoral settings from the past served as an overture for the modernism of the present. The result was a program conceived with elegant symmetry.

Elegance was also the memorable quality of Reutter-Harrah’s singing. She is a vocalist for whom words carry great significance. That significance emerges through both her diction and her phrasing, encouraging the listener to attend to both music and words in equal measure. Cockerham’s accompaniments perfectly matched the dynamics of her voice while honoring the unique characteristics of each song. More vocal recitals should be so considerate in such an approach to performance.

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