July/August 2009 Issue
July/August 2009 Issue
Soprano Jessica Rivera had not planned to specialize in contemporary repertory and commissioned works. But about five years into her ascending career, exposure to new operas “opened a door”, she said in a radio interview. Now, having performed in Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar and in premieres of John Adams’s Flowering Tree and Dr Atomic, the Los Angeles native is tying in previous interests on a fivecity tour with a recording for soprano, piano, and clarinet on the Urtext label.
Rivera’s March program at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, with the experienced clarinetist Todd Palmer and the intrepid but sensitive pianist Maryanne Kim, took in two centuries of music—from Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock through Barber’s Hermit Songs to new works by Ian Krouse and Nico Muhly that were composed for Rivera with her input and scored for this ensemble. She sees that as working “with the Mozarts and Puccinis of our time”.
Except for the Schubert, this program was about beauty, religion, and commitment. These cycles on religious or sacred texts were persuasively sung with secure, pleasingly stable medium tone.
Cantar de los Cantares (Song of Songs) is by Ian Krouse, professor of music at UCLA. Along with many other listeners who had mistaken the starting time, I watched this opening solo cantata on a large monitor outside the hall. Composed for Rivera, who is drawn to her Latin heritage, and introduced by her two years ago, it is in the luscious impassioned tonality of Richard Hundley, a master of that mode. The attractive verses are from the King James Version, translated into Spanish and set in the rising and falling arc of a sexual encounter—in that sense resembling one of Ravel’s Chansons Madecasses.
Barber’s quirky cycle, with its clever, intricate piano part, is demanding on more than one level. Of the ten wide-ranging songs, ‘Church Bells at Night’ and ‘Promiscuity’ are tiny bits such as Webern would write. A couple are sweeping religious cries: ‘At St Patrick’s Purgatory’ and the cheerfully funny ‘Heavenly Banquet’. The really hard, big rough intervals in ‘The Praises of God’ were boldly handled by both Rivera and Kim, as was the slithery rhythm of ‘The Monk and His Cat’. “We are not listening to long-gone monks here”, the program note said, “but to their thoughts chiming in a modern soul.” Whatever that means, it worked for me.
‘St Ita’s Vision’ was among the songs that suffered from unclear articulation, but so did phrases in the Schubert and Muhly. Word sheets helped.
Clearly defined mood changes and dynamics in Schubert’s beloved Hirt auf dem Felsen enhanced Rivera’s elegantly delivered coloratura. (Palmer needed no score for the longbreathed clarinet line.)
Muhly’s appealing Gospel setting, ‘The Adulteress’, was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for this debut recital. About the woman saved by Jesus (“Let anyone among you who hath not sinned cast the first stone”), it is framed by sections of two Psalms. Its clear center and well-placed exposed passages (as if the instruments knew when to trickle out) should bring this piece right into the repertory. The first psalm, about thirst and fainting for God, has keening syllables on two notes, which give way to the elongated words narrated over an irregular march beat where the Gospel action begins. A modest ending from Psalm 56 backed the soprano’s charming vocal trill.