Last night, at Walter Hall, the Canadian Art Song Project presented their latest commission; Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. The overall standard of the CASP commissions since Lawrence Wiliford and Steven Philcox launched the endeavour has been very high. The Ryan piece maintains that.
It’s a setting of seven fragments from Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. The musical style is varied and text appropriate; combining lyricism and humour with something a bit spikier. I particularly enjoyed the way Ryan will play, somewhat repetitively with a musical idea but move on just before it becomes a it tedious. He does this really well in the second section; A Glimpse of God where Carr lists all the things a picture is not. The conjunctive phrases; “nor is it” etc get an extended lyrical treatment followed by a staccato, speech like, definition; “a collection of portrayed objects”, for example. This goes on for six phrases before the last “nor yet” soars into something grander leading to the final affirmation; “It is a glimpse of God interpreted by the soul”.
There’s also a very interesting and funny musical play on the phrases “rhythm and space” and “space and rhythm” in the third section. The music also deals beautifully with Carr’s exasperation at the stupidity and cupidity of gallery owners, the public and the press. Overall, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes is a fine example of contemporary Canadian art song. It’s witty and complex and doesn’t fall into the banality that, sadly, marks a lot of contemporary American art song but it’s not mired in formalism either. There’s a quote in the last section of the piece ; Uncovered, that goes “Miss Carr is essentially Canadian, not by reason of her subject matter alone, but by her approach to it.” The same might be said of Mr. Ryan.
The performance was simply exemplary. Krisztina Szabó was on top form singing with great beauty and greater wit. This was truly a performance rooted in the text. Steven Philcox at the piano coped with everything the composer threw at him with deft skill and considerable artistry. There must be a recording. This piece deserves the widest audience.
Preceding the Ryan we heard Four Short Songs by John Beckwith to texts by Kandinsky. The first three are to rather staccato texts and got a very spare, effective ,treatment from the composer. The fourth song Earth was about carts of heavy earth, labour, weight and both piano and vocal line evoked this massiveness beautifully. It’s a short piece but well crafted and very enjoyable. Here Krisztina and Chris Enns alternated the songs to good effect.
I suppose it made sense to open the program with Ben Moore’s Dear Theo; a setting of fragments of letters by Van Gogh to his brother. There are seven sections and it’s about painting which lent the program a certain symmetry. Sadly it’s an example of the banality I referred to above and which seems to be the principal characteristic of much of the contemporary American art song that comes my way. A meandering piano line reminiscent of musical theatre and bearing no relationship to the text sits uncomfortably alongside a vocal line that sets fragmentary text in a rather dull way. The effect is like Broadway without witty or touching lyrics. A parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber setting Adrian Mole’s Diaries comes to mind. A thoroughly honest and committed performance by Chris Enns and Steven Philcox couldn’t rescue it.
So, congratulations to Steven and Lance on another great commission and to Jeffrey for writing it. North of the 49th, at least, art song seems to be in good shape.