This review is an Ionarts exclusive.
Almost all of Laitman's songs, in a massive cluster on the first half, were through-composed. Laitman had obviously thought about how to set words and phrases to a melody, often in too literal or speech-driven a style, but one rarely had the sense that she had revealed a hidden or new meaning by transforming the poem into song. All of the poems -- Sara Teasdale, William Carlos Williams, Dana Gioia, Petr Ginz (and others featured in Laitman's Holocaust oratorio Vedem), even Emily Dickinson -- were treated in a sing-songy style with echoes of music theater that came dangerously close to cheapening some of the words. With a repertory of ninth chords, sharp elevenths, and a few cocktail piano progressions, one can improvise a relatively accurate imitation of her style. After five songs, this was not in the least disagreeable, because the craftsmanship is at a high level; after twenty, it was exhausting, too much sweet nostalgia. If one could wish Laitman any one thing, it would be more bitter flavors of vinegar, salt -- anything but sugar.
Two of the singers on the program -- soprano Megan Monaghan and tenor Vale Rideout, who both have much to appreciate vocally -- did not have the air of natural song recital performers, lacking the subtlety of tone variation and delight in words that one needs. They both came alive, however, in the opera half. The best performances on the first half came from baritone Randall Scarlata, who has impressed me before as a Lieder singer. Scarlata used his story-telling skills to bring life to the whimsical songs Men with Small Heads and Refrigerator, 1957, set to light-hearted poems by Thomas Lux, two witty performances that broke the sentimental monotony of the programming. At the keyboard, Laitman was on the heavy-handed side, pushing the singers too much in volume at times.
A brief respite came with the more sensitive playing of Andrew Rosenblum, who accompanied the brief operatic scene The Act, from 2010. This was the best of the opera selections, again likely because Laitman chose lighter material, a poem by H. L. Hix that features the back-and-forth, not really dialogue, of a circus knife-thrower and his wife -- and target. Laitman has collaborated with David Mason, the Poet Laureate of Colorado, on two recent full-length operas. One of them, an adaptation of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, will receive its premiere at Opera Colorado next season, with Elizabeth Futral (who was in the audience) in the title role. Neither libretto ("she is so beautiful, an elvish spirit of the forest" was one memorable line) nor musical setting impressed much in the two excerpts performed, a lullaby sung by Hester to her baby and a confrontation involving Hester, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale. The experience of this recital, including excerpts from Laitman's new opera, Ludlow, makes the prospect of a full-length Laitman opera much less palatable.
The next concert at the National Museum of Women in the Arts will feature violinist Caroline Goulding (April 11, 7:30 pm). Concerts at the museum are free, but you are required to make a reservation in advance.