Notes and Editorial Reviews
A Lucky Child.
Some Times of the Day.
Facing Forward/Looking Back.
Here and Gone.
To Say Before Going to Sleep.
Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia
Jake Heggie (pn);
Susan Graham (mez);
Zheng Cao (mez);
Dawn Harms (vn); CarlaMaria Rodriguez (va); Emil Miland (vc);
Federica Von Stade (sop);
Joyce DiDonato (sop);
Paul Groves (ten);
Keith Phares (bar);
Isabel Bayakdarian (sop)
AVIE 2198 (73:09
Text and Translation)
Jake Heggie is perhaps the most successful opera composer of his generation. While this collection is in fact of songs and song cycles, rather than music for the theater, it still shows off his dramatic skills convincingly.
There’s some grumbling in the profession that Heggie (as in his opera
Dead Man Walking)
tends to write elevated soundtrack music with words thrown in. I’ve not seen that particular work, but based on this collection, I think such criticism is off the mark. He’s extremely knowledgeable about how to make the voice sound wonderful; it’s no coincidence that singers seem to love his work, and I mean singers of the first rank (look at the headnote!). His craft creates a consistently polished and attractive product. He’s not a music-theater composer
who’s an interloper into opera; he obviously knows the literature cold. He’s a fluent and graceful pianist, and his musicianship is evident and enviable. I also don’t doubt his sincerity of expression.
All to the good, but I think by now you know there’s a reservation coming. It comes down to essences. In the end, most of this music disappoints me because despite its very fluency and surface loveliness, I just don’t feel substance to match those qualities.
Any pronouncement like that needs some backup, and I’ll try. Heggie tends to write in a very recognizable tonal American idiom that goes back to the mid 20th century. In fact I’d go a step farther and suggest it is even more rooted in parlor, salon, and operetta music of the late 19th, but leavened with touches that suggest its contemporaneity. Much of the music could come from anywhere in roughly 1880–1920, but with a dash of dissonance here, a touch of blues there, a little bit of polytonality at the edges. In fact, the most significant indication that this work comes from our time is in many of the texts, which use librettos from such as Charlene Baldridge, Raymond Carver, Armistead Maupin, Terrence McNally, Eugenia Zuckerman, and the composer (there’s also on this disc Housman, Lindsay, Millay, and Rilke). Perhaps the juxtaposition of music that’s essentially “sweet” with texts that have more edge and irony is a sort of meta-irony in its own right, but for me the ultimate effect is to dilute much of the words’ impact, to make it acceptable to a listener who wants to be amused, charmed, even provoked … but only a little.
One word that comes to mind is
. And that’s not entirely pejorative; in fact a certain sort of effortless creative spirit is something all artists admire and aspire to, at least some of the time. But of course it also means not probing as deeply as might be truly needed. As I said before, I don’t doubt the composer’s sincerity. I just question the
of engagement with the texts, whether they’ve really been mined via the music for as much meaning as they possess, and are allowed their full range of expression.
Let me also add that there’s one cycle,
Here and Gone,
that suggests such depth beyond the norm I’ve laid out. Written for tenor, baritone, and piano quartet, and setting texts of A. E. Housman and Vachel Lindsay, its arc traces the course of thwarted love between two men that culminates in one party’s death and a deep sense of the tragedy of the unretrievable in human relations. It seems to excite the greatest range of musical styles and devices (even if rooted in early 20th-century English pastoralism), and I don’t find it predictable from moment to moment.
Heggie’s career is not going to be affected by what I say—indeed, things would be skewed if a voice like mine on the outskirts were to have such impact. He seems to have a juggernaut’s momentum that has a long way yet to go. Rather, what I have to say is like a time capsule, for anyone interested to dig up later, and see if it has any relevance to the way history has judged. And I’ll reinforce that this has nothing to do with a bias against lyricism or tonality. I recently reviewed a collection of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon that impressed me strongly, and which I find more memorable that what Heggie offers here. And John Musto remains in my mind in a higher rank altogether. Both of these are composers of Heggie’s generation who accept the need to communicate with tropes bequeathed by tradition, and aren’t afraid to place their hearts on their sleeves, yet they find a way to make what I deem a moving individual statement.
Everyone involved in this production sounds like a million dollars. Who wouldn’t want to hear Von Stade sing duets with Graham and DiDonato? Zheng Cao’s mezzo was a revelation to me. If I don’t single out others, it doesn’t mean they aren’t superb. The recorded sound is sumptuous.
OK, I’ve finished burying the capsule.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Facing Forward/Looking Back by Jake Heggie
Frederica Von Stade (Mezzo Soprano),
Susan Graham (Mezzo Soprano),
Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo Soprano)
Here and Gone by Jake Heggie
Emil Miland (Cello),
Dawn Harms (Violin),
Carla-Maria Rodrigues (Viola),
Keith Phares (Baritone),
Paul Groves (Tenor),
Jake Heggie (Piano)
To say before going to sleep by Jake Heggie
Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo Soprano),
Jake Heggie (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1988; USA
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