By Charles T. Downey
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Soprano Alyson Cambridge is testing the boundaries of classical music. The Washington-born singer’s breakthrough role at Washington National Opera was in the musical Show Boat, and her second recording, combining jazz, crossover, and pop music, was released on Naxos’ new Suite 28 Records label. Her recital on Jan. 20 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, presented by Washington Performing Arts under the title “In Her Voice,” brought together three new song cycles by American composers, two of them world premieres.
The concert opened with the most substantial work, William Bolcom’s From the Diary of Sally Hemings, which Cambridge recorded for a disc released in 2010. Bolcom used a literary text by playwright Sandra Seaton — eighteen entries in an imagined diary as it might have been written by Hemings, the slave of American president Thomas Jefferson. Historians mostly agree that she bore him children after the death of his wife. The text runs long and wanders, which forced Bolcom’s hand a bit in composition; he set most of the words in a rather straightforward style because there is so much to get through.
Cambridge’s voice is mostly transparent and pretty, with an active vibrato adding richness. Some forcing of sound at the low end occasionally turned her tone wooden in an unattractive way, but she sang this lengthy piece from memory, with dramatic immediacy, revealing Hemings as flirtatious, vain, even possessive at times. The textual longueurs are reinforced by a musical sameness, too, since the accompaniment largely comprises meandering lines, made clear but rather plain by pianist Justina Lee. Bolcom avoids his jazz- and cabaret-influenced stylistic tendencies for the most part, with only a tongue-in-cheek quotation of the taunting children’s chant “Nyah-nyah” in the second song.
The two world premieres on the second half of the program, both written for Cambridge, showed the conflict between two compositional idioms, atonal complexity and pop simplicity. The death of Pierre Boulez earlier in January could serve as a convenient end point for the era of serial music. There is no more obvious symbol of the supposed irrelevance of classical music than the dissonance and complexity of more severely atonal styles of composition. Many young composers today are turning more and more to popular music, directly or indirectly, as a way to make a living and reconnect with the culture at large.
In the Boulez vein, the brief song cycle three windows by Washington-born composer Jeffrey Mumford (b. 1955), who tends to disdain uppercase letters in his titles, was a mostly puzzling experience. Set to words by activist poet Sonia Sanchez, the score contrasts a syncopated melody for the soprano with the atonal pluckings and scratches of a cello and harp, rendered with conviction by cellist Christine Lamprea and harpist Ina Zdorovetchi.
There is not much rhythmically or harmonically for the singer to go on, a state of affairs underscored by having pianist and conductor Lee, doing double-duty here by beating time with a pencil only when Cambridge was singing. If the musicians, looking at a score, have trouble making sense of the piece, one can imagine the bewildered experience of the listener. Mumford managed to make a dramatic connection, against all odds, with a climactic recitation of some of the poetry (“I shall become a collector of me”) by Cambridge in the third and final song, notably without any sounds from the instruments.
Diametrically opposed was Tres Mujeres, an equally brief song cycle by Adam Schoenberg (b. 1980), who was a student at the Oberlin Conservatory at the same time as Cambridge (when Mumford taught there, to round out the Oberlin connections). Conductor Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have championed Schoenberg’s music in the last few years, but this is the first time that this composer has written for voice. Set to poems by his wife, Janine Salinas Schoenberg, the work is a concise glimpse at the overlapping lives of three immigrant women — a Spanish-speaking grandmother, her American daughter, and her granddaughter.
Schoenberg’s music generally remained in the realm of pop harmony, slow in tempo and intensely repetitive but with a few spikes of dissonance to disrupt its mostly meditative stasis. Cambridge and Lee performed the work with smooth polish, but one could not help wishing that Schoenberg and other young composers would not travel so far away from serialism and complexity.
Charles T. Downey is a freelance reviewer for the Washington Post and other publications. He is the moderator of ionarts.org, a Web site on classical music and the arts in Washington, D.C.