Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Songs of love: Mitzi Westra performs music by her husband, Frank Felice

Mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra
The American art song hangs on to a corner of high musical culture, and there are so many distinguished examples of it that you have to wonder what market forces keep its profile so faint across the land.

An unusual example of a local composer providing a set of art-song showcases for a superb singer came our way Tuesday night at Butler University, when Mitzi Westra, assisted by Greg Martin at the piano, performed music of Frank Felice, a composer on the faculty and the mezzo-soprano's husband.

The Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall was nearly full for the program. I suspect that the gratifying attendance can be attributed not only to the strong reputations of performers and composer, but also to the excitement among many music-lovers at the prospect of a December concert with no connection to Christmas.

Three song cycles and a setting of a Hildegard von Bingen antiphon made up the program,  representing Felice's work over a 30-year span. The opening cycle seemed to reflect an expressionist aesthetic, perhaps attributable to the relative isolation of the young composer in eastern Wyoming in 1989. Felice's program note on "Four Songs of Jennifer Haines" indicates more than a simpatico relationship to Jennifer Haines Bennett's texts, since he also tweaked her verse to give more thematic unity to the cycle.

The four resulting poems, freshly assembled for the sake of the music, are full of youthful self-doubt and a lively curiosity about changing emotional states and a refusal to be weighed down by them. In the song settings, both piano and voice are given moments of intense flair, which Martin and Westra proved fully up to making the most of. I've always admired the range and subtlety of Westra's expressiveness: There was lots of it in the diminuendo last phrase of the first song, "A Wind Burnt Spot in the Dream" — "Is there always hope?" the singer asked with a credible tinge of skepticism.

Composer Frank Felice makes a case for the viability of the American art song.
A more playful side of Felice's muse comes through in "Letters to Derrick" (1995), a loosely assembled series of  excerpts from correspondence by Tammy Cutler Reanda. The work was written on a commission from baritone Derrick Pennix, the recipient of letters from Tammy, a young friend whom he had met on a cross-country bus trip. Westra's precise singing, a treasure on a technical basis alone, never wavered in expressive extras, like the shrug she applied to the lines apologizing for taking so long to write, or the edge of ferocity, in gesture and tone, she lent to Tammy's change of mind about a young swain: "At first, I thought he was cute and nice but then he got annoying and wouldn't leave me alone."

The more uproarious side of the sportive Felice gets an outing in "Sporting Life," with the juxtaposition of styles the composer alludes to in a program note whose touchstone is Charles Ives.  In the cheer-leading for Chicago sports teams that pervades the text, there is a headlong Ivesian acceleration near the end of short excursions through ragtime and march forms. And in "Last Lines," there is a clever evocation of music-box patterns from the piano as Tammy wishes Derrick Happy New Year.

There are fewer parodic elements in the outstanding duo Felice has written on a familiar text, Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." This poem has been treated by several composers, because its matter-of-fact rhetoric takes in a series of oblique, surrealistic ways of evoking the blackbird. I thought there was a touch of mordant fantasy in Felice's setting of "XI," which opens like this: "He rode over Connecticut / in a glass coach." Something about the anxiety hinted at in the accompaniment brought to mind Schubert's "Erlk├Ânig."

That may have been an association I imported to what I heard; the main point to emphasize is that there was tremendous variety in Felice's music that suited the restless innovations in Stevens' cubist poetry. And it was carried through by both musicians on stage. Especially effective was when the mezzo-soprano moved to the end of the piano opposite the keyboard and sang toward the strings, which resonated wonderfully as Martin applied the sustaining pedal. This gave Stevens' text a genuine gloss of a kingdom of artifice like Yeats's Byzantium. I also admired Felice's good taste in judging when to repeat words and when to present the text without doubling back.

The recital ended with Felice exhibiting another mode with the newest work, "O Virgo Ecclesia." The piano writing turned more chordal, with no filigree. And the majesty of Hildegard's plea for the salvation of the Church was unstinting. There is a dynamic shift toward mystery at "Salvatoris" (Latin genitive, "of the Savior"), managed breathtakingly by Martin and Westra, before the work ends with "unde filios illius requirit" (and therefore seeks your children), a long phrase well-sustained, despite one of the less open vowel sounds. It reminded me of the beauty of the last line of "Thirteen Ways": "in the cedar-limbs."  The same vowel was negotiated  and held without strain or excessive closing, and thus it perfectly introduced the hymnlike manner with which the piano concluded the piece. There seemed to be lots of student singers in the audience, and I trust they took note.

All told, this was a recital not to be missed. My favorable impressions of Mitzi Westra go back to 2013, at least, and I am well past denying that I'm a fan. But I hasten to add kudos for Greg Martin and for the adroit, sensitive, and fully persuasive manner of Frank Felice in keeping the American art song alive in the 21st century.

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