American Composers at Play: William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman, John Musto
Stephen Powell, baritone; Attacca Quartet; William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman, John Musto, piano; Jason Vieaux, guitar; Charles Neidich, clarinet.
Ricky Ian Gordon: “Souvenir,” “Bus Stop,” “Father’s Song” (Sycamore Trees), “The Good Death” (Rappahannock County), “A Horse With Wings.”
Not many classical artists have earned a Grammy nomination with their very first solo recording. Even fewer have managed such a feat when they were well past their fiftieth birthday. The stunning success of Stephen Powell’s American Composers at Play is one of the most remarkable classical music stories in recent memory. Powell has been a busy and highly regarded professional baritone for several decades, but never took the time to make a solo recording until this late point in his career. “Now,” he says in the liner notes, “is a time of renewal—personal, artistic, and perhaps even spiritual.” This album represents all that and more; it is a masterfully conceived and executed celebration of modern American art song that ranks with the finest such recordings.
Powell’s concept was to choose four living art song composers who could also collaborate with him as pianists for their respective works. Powell could not have asked for finer artistic partners than William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman, and John Musto, four of our greatest living song composers. The baritone’s engaging liner notes describe the excitement and joy he experienced as he rehearsed with each of these composers in their respective homes. “I will always be grateful,” says Powell, “for their warmth and openness in lending their massive talents to this project.”
As grateful as Powell may be that these composers were willing to join him in this project, they in turn should be equally grateful to have their songs entrusted to such an accomplished singer. Powell possesses a rich and colorful voice under consummate control whether spinning delicate pianissimos or unleashing thundering climaxes. His musical instincts are faultless, and he manages to be sensitive without being mannered. One must especially welcome the unforced, natural clarity of his diction; it allows us to understand every single word on this recording. Those words of praise are rarely said about recordings of contemporary art song; they can be said of this one.
The first song we hear from Ricky Ian Gordon is “Souvenir,” an exquisite setting of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gordon’s poetic first love. Every bit as poignant is “The Good Death,” an excerpt from the theatrical song cycle Rappahannock County, in which a seriously ill Civil War soldier laments the likelihood that his will not be a heroic death on the battlefield, but rather a pointless death in a hospital bed due to typhus. Gordon’s music palpably burns with sorrow and frustration, and Powell’s performance of it is nothing less than searing. The same can be said for “Father’s Song,” from a largely autobiographical musical titled Sycamore Trees. In this heartbreaking song, a father mourns the death of one of his daughters from a drug overdose. Gordon takes us on a nearly unbearable journey into the most acute kind of sorrow and regret, but it is Powell’s openhearted singing that makes such a journey possible.
Complete texts for the songs are included, along with brief introductory notes to nearly every piece, full biographies of all participants, and a heartfelt essay from Powell in which he explains the concept behind the project and expresses his admiration of and gratitude to the four composers whose marvelous music comprises the heart and soul of this extraordinary release.
— Gregory Berg, Journal Of Singing, May/June 2021