Classical review: Jarman and Reed give women their due in so many words

Soprano Amy Jarman devoted her entire program Tuesday night at the Blair School of Music to songs featuring the poetry and prose of women. It seemed like a fitting gesture. March, after all, is National Women’s History Month.

jarman1The program, expertly accompanied by pianist Jerome Reed, featured the writings of six notable women, spanning chronologically from Goethe’s close friend and confidant Marianne von Willemer to Holocaust victim Anne Frank.

Curiously, only one of the program’s seven composers – the terrific contemporary Minnesota-based composer Libby Larsen – was female. The rest were the usual male suspects found on art-song recitals – Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, Hoiby, among others. The contributions of these famous men in no way diminished the point of Jarman’s fine program. Still, at the end of the day, I wanted to hear more of the words and music of women.

Of course, when it comes to art songs, you can’t beat Franz Schubert, whose “Suleika” and “Suleika’s Second Song” opened the program. Willemer was the inspiration for Goethe’s Buch Suleika. In fact, Goethe incorporated into the book some of Willemer’s poems without attribution. So one wonders whether Schubert imagined he was setting Goethe’s poetry to music instead of Willemer’s.

Not that any one cared on Tuesday night. Jarman, who teaches voice at Blair, readily captured the ardency of these love poems with her bright, plush voice. Reed, a professor at Lipscomb University, played Schubert’s difficult piano score with easy elegance.

Russian poet Glafira Galina was an exact contemporary of Rachmaninoff. Both were born in Russia in 1873, and both lived into the early 1940s – Galina died in 1942, just a year before Rachmaninoff. Certainly, Galina brought out the best in the Russian composer, who contributed some of his most unforgettably beautiful melodies to her words. Jarman and Reed performed three of their songs. I doubt I’ll ever forget the shimmering luminosity with which Jarman sang “Here it is good to be.”

I came away feeling somewhat disappointed with composer José Bowen’s “Voice from the Annex,” setting to music excerpts from the “Diary of Anne Frank.” Bowen, a music professor at Southern Methodist University, has written a lyrically appealing song set. Nevertheless, his music never probed beneath the surface meaning of Frank’s words.

Surely, when Frank wrote that she could “feel the suffering of millions,” she did not experience the same emotions as when she wrote “I still feel things will come out all right.” Bowen’s music – always bright and mellifluous – makes no distinction. There is little emotional nuance in his score.

That said, Jarman and Reed still made a compelling case for his music. Indeed, Jarman’s rendition of “A quiet conscience makes one strong,” a celebration of religious faith, was beautifully extemporaneous – one could almost imagine the young Anne Frank musing out loud.

reedAfter Intermission, Jarman and Reed presented two versions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous Sonnet 43 “How Do I Love Thee?” The first, by Larsen, was remarkable for the conversational flow of the melody. Norman Dello Joio’s version was filled with huge and difficult melodic leaps, all of which Jarman nailed.

Jarman shined in three of French composer Francis Poulenc’s songs, in large part because her French diction was just such a pleasure to hear. Reed’s significant talents came to the fore in the songs of Lee Hoiby. A great American composer of operas and songs, Hoiby was also a fantastic pianist whose keyboard music was symphonic in color and texture. Reed’s expertly calibrated performance brought out every prismatic hue.

Art song recitals were very much a phenomenon of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, these concerts, usually sung in multiple languages, are a difficult sell to contemporary audiences. Kudos to Jarman and Reed for devising a program that is not only relevant but compelling.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.