(Posted today on the TONY Blog)
In one of the mostly starkly dramatic moments of "I have some light: Songs of Spirit," the song recital presented by opera soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird and pianist Jocelyn Dueck on Thursday night (May 17) at Gallerie Icosahedron in Tribeca, no music was played at all. The program put it simply: quiet. For what seemed like a breathlessly long minute or so, Bird and Dueck sat back to back on the piano bench in silent meditation. Ambient noises in the gallery and the dull buzz outside the door were thrown into sharp relief.
We told you about Bird in "Net working," an article that appeared in the Classical & Opera section of this week's TONY, which discussed her swiftly rising career and the way she's been laying it all out for public scrutiny on her engaging, revealing blog, The Concert. (Naturally, Bird then blogged about the experience of being written about in TONY.) The article was timed to draw attention to Bird's recital, presented under the banner of the adventurous VIM: Tribeca concert series.
More than simply an attractive bunch of songs strung together, the recital was about an idea: the business of living life in contact with the divine. And Bird, a yoga practitioner, certainly knows a thing or two about the power of meditation. The pause separated the set of hymns that preceded it (including a decidedly earthy paean by Leonard Cohen, "Suzanne") from the more ecstatic visions that followed, including the world premiere of Hillula by Judd Greenstein.
Bird opened the recital with a gorgeous account of four of Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, in which she demonstrated some of the mellower, darker aspects of her range. She followed with an unaccompanied hymn, "Mary, did you know?," and an a cappella quartet number, "Breathe on Me, Breath of God." The sanctified mood continued with a wry twist in the aforementioned Cohen staple, after which came William Bolcom's wistful "Waitin'" and that dramatic pause.
Still seated on the piano bench, Dueck recited French mystic Olivier Messiaen's "Action de grâce" in French, while Bird, at a slightly staggered interval, provided the English translation. This served as a suitably otherworldly preface for Hillula, a substantial new piece by Greenstein, the busy, inventive composer who co-curates the VIM: Tribeca series.
The verses used in the piece, taken from the Zohar, are a rabbi's final words upon death, which describe an impending union with the eternal in near-romantic terms. Hillula opened with an evocation of pealing bells and a slow vocal line of chant-like intensity. Actually, that's not a bad way to describe most of the music: slow, but intense. Parts of it suggested gospel music, which has turned up in other pieces by Greenstein; other sections had an affinity to sophisticated musical-theater writing. Greenstein took full advantage of Bird's entire vocal range. Seldom were the lines complex or ornate, but the shapes of certain melodic lines and the sustained intensity provided plenty of challenge to the performer. Bird sang the piece bravely and beautifully, with a commitment that must have been gratifying to Greenstein.
Another break followed: this one, indicated in the program as peace, was provided to allow the audience to mix and mingle like a Protestant congregation's mid-service greeting. When she returned to the stage, Bird revealed that Hillula remains a work-in-progress, and that the preceding account had been approximately two-thirds of the planned piece.
The spark that led to this recital, Bird explained in our interview, was her discovery of John Harbison's Mirabai Songs, a powerful, palpably erotic cycle. Her performance of four of these songs was a highlight of the recital, as she combined an exacting performance of the notes with an overwhelmingly physical inhabitation of the texts. Three gorgeous Russian spiritual songs by Rachmaninoff brought forth her most crystalline high notes of the evening—pretty overwhelming in such close quarters. An exceedingly warm ovation earned an encore performance of "Waitin.'"
If you missed this concert, you missed something far more personal and touching than your everyday lieder concert. Particularly in the Barber and Harbison selections, Bird proved herself a singer capable of not merely delivering the notes—although she certainly did—but also of getting under the skin of a piece, touching its inner passions and revealing them to a listener. It's going to be a thrill to revisit Hillula when she gets that deeply inside of it, and vice versa. Dueck was a sensitive, versatile accompanist, as well as a full partner in the drama Bird had constructed for her program.
Bird and Dueck plan to record this program for Greenstein's New Amsterdam record label, and they also want to take it on the road. Keep an eye on The Concert for future developments.