An Evening of American Song: “And If the Song Be Worth a Smile”

An Evening of American Song:
“And If the Song Be Worth a Smile”
Lisa Delan, soprano
Kristin Pankonin, piano
Matt Haimovitz, cello
The Allen Room, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center
May 21, 2010, New York, NY

This concert of songs by six living American composers was presented by PentaTone Classics to celebrate its release of Lisa Delan’s recording of the program, also entitled “And if the Song be Worth a Smile.” Three of the composers – Gordon Getty, David Garner, and Luna Pearl Woolf – were present; Woolf’s cycle was written for Ms. Delan and her pianist, Kristin Pankonin, whose empathetic support contributed greatly to the evening’s success.

Lisa Delan

Lisa Delan

Of the Three Folk Songs arranged by Jake Heggie (b. 1961), two were plaintive, one was cheeky and chattering. The accompaniments underlined the melodies’ mood and character, but were often too elaborate. “Cabaret Songs” by William Bolcom (b. 1938), on texts by Arnold Weinstein, evoked sensuousness, inebriation, and yearning.

“Odas de Todo Mundo” (“Odes for Everyone”) by Luna Pearl Woolf (1973), to poems by Pablo Neruda and sung in Spanish, were commissioned by Ms. Delan. The music mirrored the mercurial changes of the poetry – Latin dance rhythms, descriptions of nature and the human condition – and ended in a blaze of exuberance. The performers were joined by the composer’s husband, cellist Matt Haimovitz, renowned for his masterful playing and his multi-faceted career. Once a famously talented prodigy, he is now a versatile, communicative artist; in a demanding part tailored to his virtuosity and beautiful tone, he added intense, compelling power to the performance.

Three Cabaret Songs by Corigliano (b. 1938) to poems by Mark Adamo poked fun at various aspects of the musical experience, punning on the atonalists’ tone-rows, parodying the latest electronic recording device, lampooning the transformation of the friendly neighborhood record store into an impersonal coffee-bar. The songs sounded less “cabaret”-influenced than Bolcom’s, but, like much of Corigliano’s music, bore traces of many other styles. Though Mss. Delan and Pankonin had performed the songs separately, this was the complete set’s premiere.

Getty (b. 1933) wrote his own poetry for his three-song cycle, “Poor Peter:” a pensive love song, a rollicking dance with surprising, quirky rhythms, and a mournful, pleading ballad sung by an old beggar (recalling the blind “Harpist” of Goethe and Schubert). Words and music mimicked the style of Merrie Olde England, with words like “easterly” and “southerly.” The program’s title is taken from the third song.

The seven-song cycle “Phenomenal Woman” by Garner (1954) incorporated jazz, blues, rock and cabaret styles. The proudly feminist poems by Maya Angelou ranged from defiance, protest, and tongue-in-cheek self-promotion to religious fervor and resignation.

Lisa Delan has made these songs entirely her own, textually and musically. Her voice encompasses a wide range and she can color and inflect it for mood and expression. Her excellent diction was especially important in the humorous songs. She used “light” amplification to reflect the sound back to the performers; this made it difficult to fully judge the quality of her voice, and probably caused some shrillness in the topmost register and some imbalance with the instruments. She was most persuasive in the slow, lyrical, pensive songs; the fast, skittish ones seemed least suited to her voice and stage presence.

The audience’s warm response proved that all the songs were worth a smile, so Mr. Haimovitz returned for an encore: Ms. Woolf’s trio arrangement of Getty’s “The Going from a World We Know.”

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