Florestan, BMOP Offer Sublime Tribute to Vocal Music

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The Boston Musical Intelligencer
Larry Phillips
September 29, 2009

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project had a good idea last weekend. They paired with the Florestan Project, a superb vocal group, to present three days of concerts named "Voice of America" at Tufts University’s Distler Performance Hall. Florestan presented the complete songs of Samuel Barber, some 75 in number. The Sunday afternoon concert I attended then featured a chamber-music-sized BMOP with concerted songs of Samuel Barber and Virgil Thomson. Florestan and BMOP together offered a sublime tribute to the voice.

Baritone Aaron Engebreth lent his strong baritone in two songs from the 1930's. Pianist Alison d'Amato was his able collaborator. Then tenor Joe Dan Harper, in his set of four songs collaborating with Anne Kissel, sang the unpublished Music, When Soft Voices Die, penned when the composer was 16. Longing had lovely high notes.

Soprano Sarah Pelletier, with Shiela Kibbe at the piano, sang songs from the '20s, including the harrowing, but unpublished, Man. Highlights remaining from the hour’s recital include Harper's Sleep, now, with its extraordinary ending; Engebreth's I hear an army, with its poignant words "Why have you left me alone"; and Pelletier's Hermit Songs from the '50s, introduced by the singer as one of the best cycles in the 20th Century. No one can forget the last song's "ah, to be all alone."

After a pause, BMOP provided the concerted section. The classic Dover Beach (text by Matthew Arnold) was given a strong rendition by Engebreth and a string quartet. Baritone Thomas Meglioranza offered a wondrous The Feast of Love, a fourth-century work translated in 1964 by Virgil Thomson.

Soprano Kristen Watson joined Meglioranza for a romp through Thomson’s Collected Poems (Kenneth Koch, 1962.) The singing illustrated Thomson’s vernacular style eminently.

After intermission we were in for a treat, Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (James Agee text) and Thomson's Five Songs of William Blake (1952). The former, a classic bit of Americana premiered by Eleanor Steber in 1947, was terribly moving as sung by Watson, especially at the end, as she sings about being put to bed by her parents.

The rarely performed Thomson songs, sung beautifully by Meglioranza, were equally moving. Thomas Hampson sang it at Tanglewood this summer as part of his song project. Who can forget the tune of The Divine Image? The Land of Dreams ended with a falsetto note of such startling tone and length as to be arresting. The Little Black Boy takes on added meaning these days as the singer intones "And I am black, but O! My soul is white." And Did Those Feet is the famous "Jerusalem," set as a hymn by Parry, but here underlining the martial nature of the second verse.

Tufts University benefited from this weekend, too, since the venue was its new Distler Performance Hall, a venue that seats 300, and aptly described by Joseph Auner, chair of the music department, "as a room — as you shall hear — that is made for singing." It is a pity, then, that more people didn’t turn out. Perhaps they would have if they had known that Florestan, in honor of Tennessee, planned a bourbon reception afterwards to celebrate the weekend.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.