The great American composers are alive and well in the Source blackbox, as In Series continues its season: Made in America (all three Americas that is…) with ABCs of American Art Song. The night of music includes three classic vocal compositions by Argento, Barber, and Copland, all of whom took source material from some of the most prominent voices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
If any of the above piques your interest, then ABCs is certainly for you. The night of art songs is conversational and reverent, making no qualms about its love of its material. This is a showing for lovers of literature and composition, both of which collide in some stunning compositions.
The music is well cared for, with host Rick Davis giving the three pieces necessary introductions and charming laudations. Pianists Frank Conlon and Carla Hübner bring technical prowess and clear passion for the pieces, and the projections and lights designed by Autum Casey magnificently accompany the songs without distracting from their elegance.
The star of the night, though, was without a doubt mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Mondragon. Her performance of Aaron Copland’s 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson was a triumph, as she glided her way through the iconic poetry with strength, nuance, and a powerful wit that many others would forgo. Her performance made the piece as charming as it is beautiful, a feat that adds so much dimension to poems that have the capability of growing stagnant in their sacredness.
Dominick Argento’s The Diary of Virginia Woolf was also a powerful showing for Mondragon, though slightly more contrived than the Copland. This is mostly due to the piece itself though, which does not completely succeed in the herculean task of gracefully arranging Woolf’s gorgeous and troubled prose. Despite its best effort, the piece can’t quite iron the seam between its guarded source material and its twelve-tone music. But it’s an interesting experiment to say the least, and Mondragon tackled it with power and subtlety.
Stepping in for the night as well was soprano Melissa Jean Chavez, who performed Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a musical arrangement of James Agee’s prose poem and a candidate surely for “most beautiful piece of 20th century American music.” The lyrically lush piece served as an incredible capstone to a night of great music, a triumph of American artistry. Chavez brought to it a wistful and enrapturing energy that left one lost in a musical memory play.
ABC’S OF AMERICAN ART SONG
1 show left: March 5
1835 14th Street NW
120 minutes with 1 intermission
Website and Tickets
Between pieces were talkbacks with the audience, which added a pleasant – if plodding – atmosphere to the event. The night was entertaining and educational, a wonderful combination for this collection of American art song. And while we might have gotten caught up on some frivolous details (yes, “Hardy’s funeral” is, in fact, about Thomas Hardy), the opportunity to engage with these pieces gave them some wonderful context.
ABCs of American Art Song is simply lovely. It might at times seem like an insider’s endeavor – music by music lovers for music lovers – but if the source material or even the idea of fans passionately discussing art that they love strikes your fancy, it’s a charming night of truly talented performances.
ABCs of American Art Song with songs by Dominick Argento, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland. Hosted by Rick Davis. Featuring Elizabeth Mondragon and Melisa Jean Chavez. Pianists Frank Conlon and Carla Hübner. Projections and lighting design by Autum Casey. Produced by In Series. Reviewed by Sean Craig.