The New American Art Song is a CD of, unsurprisingly, American art songs. Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch is accompanied by the composers in four contrasting sets. The first set is Quiet Lives by Ricky Ian Gordon; eight songs setting texts by various poets. The music is tonal with occasional elements of minimalism but overall a bit of a retro “piano lounge” feel that didn’t particularly excite me.
Second up were two songs, Of Gods and Cats, by Jake Heggie to texts by Gavin Geoffrey Gillard. These are sly, witty, jazzy and much more contemporary sounding. Much more musically inventive too. It’s easy to see why Heggie is in the upper tier of contemporary American composers. The disc also has a bonus Heggie song; a setting of Browning’s Grow Old Along With Me, that I really liked.
Glen Roven’s Songs from the Underground comprises fifteen songs to texts by various poets from Milton to Dylan Thomas. These are very varied in subject matter and mood and get inventive, and sometimes quite dramatic, settings. The musical language is still tonal but much more modern and, dare one say it, less American in feel than, say, the Gordon pieces. I liked this set a lot.
Lowell Liebermann’s three Night Songs are simple, pleasant and melodic but a bit bland.
Okulitch sings with great attention to the text and excellent diction, which is good as the CD booklet doesn’t have the texts. It’s a pleasant but not especially distinctive voice. It’s definitely not one of those (like say Finley or Terfel) which one instantly recognises. It works nicely with these songs though.
I continue to be struck by how different the new American art songs that come my way are from the Canadian ones. I occasionally hear some fairly retro stuff in Toronto but mostly what I hear from the likes of Brian Harman, Dean Burry and Brian Current is uncompromisingly modern in idiom and often quite challenging. What comes my way from the US is gentler and often somewhat retro which is something I see in the new operas that American houses are doing (compared to continental Europe at least. We’ll see how the COC’s string of contemporary commissions turn out). As far as song goes I wonder whether this reflects a real difference in national styles or sample bias.