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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Santa Fe Songs

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New American Art Song, D. Okulitch, R. I. Gordon, J. Heggie, L. Liebermann, G. Roven
(GPR Records, 2013)
It is time for press week at the Santa Fe Opera, although I arrived a little earlier than normal this year. In between the five operas, there are some recitals presented by Performance Santa Fe, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. The first concert of the season is part of a four-part Festival of Song, two of which are falling on days when the opera house is dark this week. On Thursday afternoon, soprano Keri Alkema and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch teamed up with composer Glen Roven to perform a program mostly of Roven's songs, at the Santa Fe Scottish Rite Center.

Roven has worked mostly as a Broadway composer, conductor, and arranger, and his art songs, unknown to me up to this point, have something in common with those of Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie. Roven credited Chinese soprano Hui He with the inspiration for his song cycle Six Ancient Chinese Poems, a set of six songs set to Chinese poetry translated by Jane Hirshfield, sung here by Keri Alkema, who made her Santa Fe Opera debut this summer as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (more about that later). The more dramatic soprano writing suited Alkema's powerful voice beautifully, particularly thrilling at the end of the second song and at the exclamation "O wind, do not stop" in the final song, while songs that required a softer approach at the top were not as easily negotiated.

Roven's harmonic and melodic palette in these songs did not have Chinese elements, other than perhaps a tinge of something like Debussy's Pagodes, but in a second cycle, The Santa Fe Songs, Roven ranged into many other styles and sounds. It seemed tailored to the voice of Daniel Okulitch, who sings the title role of Don Giovanni across from Alkema's Donna Elvira this season, a rich, refined sound across the whole ambitus and with excellent diction. The second song, "Listening to Jazz Now," was a highlight, with a pitch-perfect jazz style, as was the harmonic tension that mirrored the poetry of the third song. In all of his songs, Roven played his own accompaniments with poise. Here Roven set all texts by poets from Santa Fe, encountered on a previous visit, and three of the poets were in attendance.

Other Articles:

Jennifer Levin, Poetry and music intersection: Glen Roven's "The Santa Fe Songs" (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 22)
Two songs by Jake Heggie, sung by Alkema and accompanied by Joe Illick, reinforced the impression of Heggie's songs as musical equivalents of Hallmark cards, complete with a soupy cello solo played well by Joe Johnson, the principal cellist of the Santa Fe Opera orchestra. Stylistically similar was Evan Mack's A Little More Perfect, set to excerpts from the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which was utterly nondescript musically while meaningful in its words. Roven's weakest work was in a poorly judged, overblown setting of Goodnight Moon, the dulcet children's book by Margaret Wise Brown, heard here in the first performance of a new duet version made for these two singers. An encore of You're Just in Love, from Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, was an eye-roller.

The next concert in the Performance Santa Fe Festival of Song series will feature soprano Angela Meade (July 31, 4 pm), in a program including Strauss songs and some opera arias.

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