Songs From the House of Death is a new song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra by Ian Cusson. It was premiered in April by Krisztina Szabó and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. It’s a setting of three texts from Joy Harjo‘s How We Became Human. Ian has a knack of finding really strong texts by Indigenous poets and these are no exception. The longest (13 minutes of the 23 minute work) is “Songs From the House of Death; Or How to Make it Through the End of a Relationship”. This is an evocation of death and impermanence and memory. The setting is very varied. The opening pizzicato strings are barely audible but it rapidly builds to blend densely orchestrated (it’s a big orchestra) and very high energy music with much gentler and more lyrical passages; sometimes using the concert master as a soloist. This fits the changing moods of the text and, as I’ve come to expect with Ian, the music is always rooted in the text.
The second song; “I am a Dangerous Woman” is a, perhaps slightly tongue in cheek, description of going through airline security. But no metal detector will find “the gun inside my head” of the dangerous woman. The setting here is again driven, energetic and a bit of a punch in the gut. The final song; “Creation Story” is again about love and death and how we deal with them. The text is gentle and lyrical and so is the setting.
Songs From the House of Death is essentially tonal and lyrical though it can be abrasive in places. If the title suggests an affinity with Janáček it’s probably not a coincidence as there’s even a cheeky little quote in there. But it’s not Janáček-lite, it’s 100% Ian Cusson and it’s by turns beautifully melodic and something much more driven and disturbing. It’s good stuff.
The performance is really good. Ms. Szabó is her usual excellent self with a genuine feel for the words and a voice capable of great beauty and enough heft to deal with the orchestration. The VSO and conductor Nicolas Ellis provide fine accompaniment. He’s not at all afraid to explore the extremes of the orchestra’s dynamic range either. Given that the recording is very high quality and not adjusted for dynamic range it can make domestic listening a bit tricky!
There’s a video recording of the performance available as part of the VSIO’s “on-line” series. It comes with Jane Coop playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 and Schumann’s Symphony no. 4. It’s a pay for a key arrangement ($20.90) and full details are here.