American Record Guide: American Composers at Play

American Composers at Play

Bolcom, Gordon, Laitman, Musto Stephen Powell, bar; Charles Neidich, cl; Jason Vieaux, g; Attacca Quartet—Acis 689—75 minutes

For his first solo album, Stephen Powell has produced a magnificent program of songs with texts by American writers set by four of America’s best composers. Trenchant and poignant songs are side-by-side with whimsical ones. All of them in some way show the composers “at play”—having fun with texts. It would be hard to find a better album of contemporary American songs than this.

The program gets off to a poignant start with an aria from Lori Laitman’s opera Ludlow, which tells the story of the Ludlow Massacre in the 1913-14 coal-mining wars of southern Colorado when more than a dozen innocent people, mostly women and children, were killed when the Colorado National Guard burned down the tent colony of strikers protesting brutal conditions. Later we hear her set of four off-beat songs, Men with Small Heads; a lovely setting of Emily Dickinson’s touching `If I’ with piano and clarinet accom- paniment; and the humorous song, `Money’, about its ubiquitous power. I’ve reviewed her songs before (M/A 2007, S/O 2009, S/O 2011) and find them exceptionally fine.

Five stand-alone songs of Ricky Ian Gordon and six of William Bolcom are woven into the tapestry of this album. Gordon has a strong gift for memorable melodies in his setting of vivid texts, each a poignant look at life: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s `Souvenir’; “lives of quiet des- peration” in `Bus Stop’; a heart-breaking confessional `Father’s Song’; `The Good Death’, a lament over ignominious Civil War deaths from typhoid; and `A Horse with Wings’, his “anthem for connectedness, for gratitude, for celebrating my newly found humanity”.

Four of Bolcom’s songs are from his Cabaret Songs: `Waitin’, `Can’t Sleep’, `Satisfaction’, and `Song of Black Max’—perhaps the show-stopper of the whole program. The other two are of an entirely different nature; `Billy in the Darbies’ from Melville’s Billy Budd with string quartet accompaniment and `Lady Death’ by A.D. Winans, both of which address the affront of death.

Two sets of songs by John Musto complete the program. Enough Rope is a set of three short songs on pithy texts of Dorothy Parker. The Brief Light with guitar accompaniment is settings of six texts by James Laughlin on love and lust.

This is one of the best collections of American songs by current composers you’ll find anywhere. The performances are everything you could hope for. Stephen Powell had the advantage of rehearsing and recording the songs with the composers to ask about interpretive details—though Bolcom only told him circumspectly, “Just do what I wrote.”

Powell’s performance is splendid. He commands a wide range of expressive detail from tender singing to shouting to make these compelling songs irresistible. Texts are included, but they are hardly necessary with Powell’s lucent diction. Notes are included by Powell about producing this album and the composers about their songs, but I wish more information had been supplied about the fine compositions.

American Record Guide, January/February 2021