Post by David Sims
Renowned mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe will premiere a new song cycle by composer Juliana Hall on Saturday, January 19, 2019 at the Sparks & Wiry Cries’ first songSLAM Festival at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York City. Complete information about the songSLAM Festival – including links to purchase tickets – is available here.
The songSLAM Festival is a four-day celebration of new art song, with a “slam” evening (similar to a poetry slam) in which a program of composer-performer teams present new songs, with a winning song declared by audience appreciation, on Thursday, January 17th. Recitals of new and newly-commissioned works will be presented on Friday, January 18th (celebrating the creations of librettist Mark Campbell with various composers) and on Sunday, January 20th (new songs focusing on the topic #MeToo: Pathways to Healing).
The Festival’s Saturday, January 19th evening event will be a special recital called Expressions of Love: Stephanie Blythe and friends, and will include a new song cycle by composer Scott Gendel and a piece by composer-pianist Alan Louis Smith (performed by soprano Maggie Finnegan and pianist Daniel Overly), with parlour songs rounding out the recital (performed by Ms. Blythe and pianist Alan Louis Smith).
The other work on the January 19th program is Juliana Hall’s first contralto song cycle, Of That So Sweet Imprisonment, a work of seven songs on love poems by James Joyce. Composed by Hall for Ms. Blythe, this work is a celebration of love, about which Juliana Hall writes:
When I first “met” Stephanie Blythe online a few years ago, I was not just thrilled to be “friends” with this beautiful singer for whom I have so much admiration, I was also surprised that she knew who I was, liked my songs, and wanted me to be a guest at her Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar… a dream that came true last May. So in 2017 I wrote to Stephanie, “I’m going to be sixty soon, and I’d really like a special present for this milestone. Could I write you a song cycle?” Well, again to my surprise, she answered within a split second with a definitive “yes,” adding, “All I ask is that you consider writing the piece for the contralto voice. It is where I live so happily now, and there is just not enough out there for this particular voice type.” In short order I settled on a set of seven poems by James Joyce, love poems that are subtle, rich, and deep. There is a gentle narrative from the first to the last poem, following love (Orpheus perhaps) to the speaker’s desire to find her love, a declaration of wanting to be “imprisoned” by this love, a longing to be in a special place of love, a movement away from being a girl towards becoming a woman, a scene of harp music celebrating love (heaven perhaps), and finally a simple scene of lovers being together forever in a place special to them – all of which promised to elucidate Joyce’s beautiful vision of human love through the exquisite prism of the textures and colors of the contralto voice. This new work, Of That So Sweet Imprisonment, does not excite as a huge orchestral work might, nor does it amuse as a comedic song would, or impress through drama as a romantic opera might. What I hope it succeeds in doing, though, is to allow the intimacy of art song to touch upon perhaps our most profound human experience – that of love – in a way that only art song can: to reach that small, quiet inner voice of truth we come to know when we feel unconditionally loved by another and when we find ourselves able to love another without limit. While Stephanie Blythe certainly has the most amazing ability to produce the excitement, comedy, or drama of other types of musical works, I have heard her sing the most penetrating and powerful pianissimo notes I’ve probably heard any singer ever produce, and it is that ability to share the intimate, the small, and the personal that makes Stephanie the perfect singer to bring these songs into the world with clarity, purity, and beauty. It is my wish that Of That So Sweet Imprisonment might bring a breath of peace and inner warmth into each listener’s life, and help them to once again feel the pulsating life that love makes possible for each of us.
Juliana Hall recently appeared as the 2018 Guest Composer at Blythe’s Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar. Blythe has complimented Hall’s work generously, stating:
“There is a beautiful alchemy that occurs when composer Juliana Hall meets a poem. Revealing each morsel of poetry through her brilliant tonal, textural, and rhythmic language, her work is immediately recognizable and wonderfully familiar. Singers and audiences alike take delight in her songs. Over the years, many of my young colleagues have brought her work for me to coach in my own song program, Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar, but equally, I have heard her songs in virtually every university in which I have taught master classes over the last decade. Ms. Hall’s songs have a very important endorsement – singers want to sing them. Indeed, they love to sing them, and it is readily understood why. Her choice of text is varied, impressive and speaks to a wide cultural audience. The topics are relevant to today’s artists, and therefore, extraordinarily desirable. It is also incredibly evident that she understands the singing voice and the great art of collaboration with the pianist – there is a level of musical discourse here that demands expertise, and rewards the work with a generous and complete technical, interpretive and emotional experience. It is positively magical.”