Kerry Jennings, Michelle Rice and Charles Woodward
present Songs of Benjamin Britten
Life offers many surprises and for the
art song lover, a recital at Chandler Hall in Norfolk on April 2,
2007 was an especially pleasing one. Tenor Kerry Jennings, in his
first year as vocal professor at Old Dominion University, was able
to put together this spontaneously organized program ten days before.
A long time friend and seasoned Britten performer, mezzo-soprano Michelle
Rice, based in Washington, D.C., joined him. Our local talented and
versatile Charles Woodward was at the piano.
Ms. Rice opened the program with Britten's A Charm of Lullabies, Op. 41. The five songs are both personal and powerfully expressive. Except for A Cradle Song, a mother's distracted musings, they have little in common with songs we use to soothe children into sleep. Using a text by Robert Burns (1759-1796) in The Highland Balou, the mother tells us that her child is a highland thief who will grow up to roam the countryside and bring a stolen Carlisle cow home to her. Our singer was totally present and open in her communication of this music. Sephestia's Lullaby, on a poem by Robert Green (1558-1592), juxtaposes a dirge on the grief in adult life, intercut by giddy, fast- paced childhood rope skipping verses but even there the story is tragic.
Ms. Rice told us later that she understands the cycle as an expression of a mother's exasperation. That works well as an approach to A Charm which has an adult text by Thomas Randolph (1605-1635) of threats that certainly do not soothe. The Nurse's Song, with text by John Phillip (fl.1561), is a "lullaby baby" song with minor chord resolutions that belie the traditional settings. As the song ends one is left with a sense of unease.
By email, Ms. Rice, who will soon appear as Mrs. Grose for the fourth
time in The Turn of the Screw, commented on how Britten's
text and music fit so well together. "What I feel is so superlative
about Britten's setting of text deals mostly with the way subtext
is communicated. For example in The Turn of the Screw, often
the melody and the rhythm indicate additional information about
the character's state of mind that is expressly missing from the
character's words, and the music that accompanies or punctuates
a vocal line can show something totally separate and even more complicated
about the speaker's state of mind. And in Britten's music the result
is never too gimmicky or too obvious, nor does it require too much
analysis on the part of the listener to achieve the desired effect.
It seems more musical for this deliberate dramatic intricacy, rather
than less." For more information on Michell Rice, visit www.michelle-rice.com/
In his first set Dr. Jennings sang four folk songs arrangements: O, Waly, Waly; The Salley Gardens; The Foggy, Foggy Dew and Oliver Cromwell. Though we had texts, there was no need. His diction was precise with a British sound. As with everything else that Britten touches, he makes these tunes his own by manipulating the timing of familiar phrases and adding rich piano accompaniments giving the performers a chance to shine, which they did. With a dance hall tune in the piano, The Foggy, Foggy Dew has Mr. Jennings resting against the piano as he tells his tale of wooing a fair maiden. The only thing he did wrong was keep her from the foggy, foggy, dew, inside his bedcovers. Now he is older and living with his son who has his mother's eyes and he remembers all those nights. Oliver Cromwell is a silly, sassy children's rhyme celebrating that this puritanical ruler is long dead.
After intermission Dr. Jennings sang Canticle I, Op. 40 (1947) described
in the Grove Dictionary as a rapturous meditation around "my beloved
is mine and I am his." The song was premiered with Britten at the
piano and sung by his life-partner Peter Pears and is a happy celebration
of their life together. The text, by Francis Quarles and loosely
based on The Song of Solomon, is set as a miniature cantata. The
distinct timbre of Pears tenor voice could be heard in Jenning's
performance as he sang as if he opens his heart to his audience
and out pours the passion of his love. His diction was clear as
he carefully traversed the sometimes tricky musical setting. You
hear the two brooks spoken of in the text in the piano that seems
to dance over pebbles in Chuck Woodward's playing. The brooks merge
and form a river of the partner's love.
Five years later Britten returned to the Cantata form in Canticle II, Op. 51, Abraham and Isaac. Ms. Rice sang the role of Isaac to Mr. Jennings' Abraham and together they are the voice of God in speech rhythm set in close intervals. The musical interval between God and man is great before the demanded sacrifice of Isaac to God; they unite in Eb at the end. For many listeners the idea that a supreme being is so jealous of the love between a human father and son that He demands such a sacrifice is abhorrent. The text is an adaptation of the medieval Chester Miracle Play. Isaac is bound and "sore adread" on the altar where he will be stabbed to death and then burned as a sacrifice to God. Abraham prays "Jesu! On me have pity, that I have most in mind." Then comes the resolution: God relents, satisfied that Abraham is loyal to him. A ram is spotted in the brambles nearby. Much modern harmony is heard in the choral blend in the first lines of God speaking. Jennings stands stiffly each time they speak for God. There is an intimacy of singers as father and son; there is no bluster in Britten's musical dialogue. A capella phrases are echoed by the piano completing a powerful experience brought to life by these three talented musicians.
Dr. Jennings teaches voice, vocal pedagogy
and directs the Opera Workshop. A strong advocate of educational outreach,
he has sung for and connected with thousands of students while touring
for opera organizations. Besides the art song aficionados like us,
the audience was made up of enthusiastic ODU students and musical
faculty. His current students stood and cheered after the performance.
In conversation after the concert his fellow professors offered high
praise for his collegiality. This is our third time hearing him sing.
Last August he was a soloist at Schola Cantorum's Summer Sing in Schuber's
Mass in G. This year he sang the cycle Song for Achilles by
Michael Tippett with the contemporary music ensemble CREO.
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