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Mark Crayton at the Phillips

Mark Crayton, countertenor, and James Janssen, piano, not at the Phillips CollectionBy way of explaining the following review, the Phillips Collection described its most recent Sunday recital as featuring countertenor Mark Crayton with James Janssen at the harpsichord. Expecting a nice selection of Baroque arias, and perhaps something from Mozart's Idomeneo for the dreaded Mozart Year, I went. Much to my chagrin, Mr. Janssen was sitting at a piano, not a harpsichord, and the earliest music on the program was composed around 1890. Mr. Crayton, a countertenor with a strong and pleasant alto voice, calls the program Native Tongue and cited as inspiration his mother's plea that he sing something in English. The first half was a selection of songs with connections to folk music and Shakespeare, beginning with three poems by William Blake -- an Ionarts favorite poet -- in a saccharine setting by Roger Quilter. I admit that I have never liked what I've heard of Quilter's music, which is retrogressive without the earthiness that saves the music of a composer like Ralph Vaughan Williams.

I enjoyed the three songs by American shyster composer John Jacob Niles, who famously passed off some of his own compositions as folk tunes supposedly collected in Appalachia. He did actually collect folk tunes, but sometimes it is difficult not to want to make folk music sound more how we think folk music should sound. I am not sure how people on a Kentucky mountain in the early 20th century would have reacted to Mr. Crayton singing "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," but it would have been fun to watch. The high point of the first half was the Shakespeare songs (the song texts found in Shakespeare's plays and other poems), three by Vaughan Williams and five by Gerald Finzi, the latter of which finally challenged my ear with something other than sweet, tooth-rotting Romantic harmonies. The tempo of the third Finzi song (Fear no more the heat o' the sun, from the fourth act of Cymbeline) was so slow that all energy was sapped from the performance, although the slow recitative section ("No exorciser harm thee!") was nicely done, hushed and reverent. The fourth song (O mistress mine, where are you roaming?, from Twelfth Night) had a genial Andante tempo that was quite lovely.

In the second half, the duo presented new music by living composers, in an attempt to bring some fresh repertory to countertenors everywhere. Three songs by David W. Solomons combined poetry of questionable value -- haiku in English by the composer's friend, a poorly translated Kurdish poem penned by a prisoner, and the composer's own poem -- with music that was just as facile -- pentatonic scales sound Japanese, augmented seconds sound Middle-Eastern -- if sometimes entertaining. Two songs by Ronald William Hill, a scientologist office manager in Chicago, sounded essentially like Broadway or pop songs. Last, there was a set of three songs, Humanities, by Gregory Peebles, otherwise known in Blogville as MezzoGregory or Il Supremo, blogging at Counter/Point 3.0. Peebles also used his own poetry, with mixed results. The advantage of using your own words is that a composer can create an idiomatic song with deep personal meaning -- and these songs clearly mean a lot to their composer and performers -- but the disadvantage is that poets tend to write better poems than composers. Musically, too, these songs only added to my impression of a monochromatic harmonic palate in this recital, something like Broadway meets the Shenandoah.

I did not enjoy this recital overall, but Mark Crayton's voice was certainly not the issue. Nor was his accompanist, James Janssen, who played capably, if with a few barely noticeable slips. This program is just not my cup of tea. For much more interesting examples of English-language, albeit all American song, the recital of Thomas Hampson is a good model. I know that at least a couple Ionarts readers were at the Phillips, too. Please use the comments section to share your opinion.


Anonymous said...

yeah. ionarts smack-down!
thank you 'mam, may i have another?

a little easy on the performers, though. perhaps not critical enough... too easily impressed. :)

i finzi, though! what a marvellous, woefully underrated, too-little-known composer!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for reposting the review. I knew the dangers of using my own poetry entering the project, so your review does not fall on deaf ears. Thank you, too, for understanding how much the songs mean to me. Whatever they may lack in perfection, it seems that something of their Humanity shone through, and that was my hope.

Anonymous said...

I heard the Peebles cycle in its Chicago area premiere, at the first performance of "Native Tongue," and was well enough pleased that I've obtained the composer's permission to use the first song of the group at an upcoming audition (I'm a contralto). I'm always looking for singable pieces with ear-catching texts and points of view, and I believe that the Peebles should get an open-minded hearing, or several, with feedback that will help the composer work with greater precision on his next commission.

To draw a comparison between the contemporary repertoire available to a countertenor -- rare birds and few that those singers are -- and the choices available to Thomas Hampson -- a superb baritone in a wide field, with galaxies of rep open to him and composers begging him to perform it -- strikes me as unhelpful, after you've stated up front that you simply don't like the contemporary song literature at all.

An honest question, then: why on earth did you stay when you saw that piano on the stage, if your reaction was chagrin and you'd already decided in advance that you weren't going to like anything you heard, no matter how well performed? Or have I misread you?

jfl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jfl said...

"An honest question, then: why on earth did you stay when you saw that piano on the stage, if your reaction was chagrin and you'd already decided in advance that you weren't going to like anything you heard, no matter how well performed? Or have I misread you?"

i don't think the honesty of admitting mixed feelings about a performance beforehand should be mistaken for the inability or unwillingness to write an unbiased and honest review about it. criticism is more difficult than it seems, precisely because one has to be aware of personal bias, mood, expectations et al. - but that is not saying that it is anything but the actual performance that determines the result. we can well go into a performance with suspicions of dread-to-be (it's unavoidable) and be positively surprised and like it... but if we do indeed dislike such a performance we are likely to be even more careful in justifying our opinion or making sure it is understood to be partly rooted in personal taste that was affected the opinion beyond the mere technical execution of it.

charles certainly treads carefully in this review... aside, he's ionarts
"Good Cop" to my "Bad Cop". Speaking of which - I have to get back to writing about the Four Last Songs i just heard. Snicker.

Charles T. Downey said...

Lady T, thank you for the differing point of view, which I always appreciate. I'm sure that Gregory Peebles is benefitting from a lot of sympathetic ears, yours included. I don't think that it would honestly help not to criticize when that criticism is sincerely felt.

As for the supposedly superior range of choices available to Thomas Hampson, the pieces on that recital I so admired are by Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, William Grant Still, Charles Ives, and Elinor Remick Warren. The ones that are not published are available for anyone to sing, in the Library of Congress.

Nowhere in the review did I state that I "don't like the contemporary song literature," which my praise of the composers listed in the previous paragraph should make evident. I did say that I don't like Roger Quilter, but that is not the same thing. I certainly did not decide in advance that I would not like anything I heard. To the contrary, I liked the Vaughan Williams and loved the Finzi.

Yes, I was disappointed not to be hearing Baroque music, some of the most natural repertory for a countertenor. I did not leave the concert after seeing a piano instead of a harpsichord precisly because I am open-minded.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for worrying about me, Mr. Downey, but I don't feel like I need a sympatheic ear. You wrote your review based on your experiences of the pieces, and that's good enough for me.

I am, of course, grateful that Lady T likes the pieces enough to want to perform one of them. And I'm grateful to you for even mentioning the pieces at all online, since, as they say, there's really no such thing as bad press. I'm a young musician. I'm growing yet. There may be something that I am able to offer one day that you may care for more than what you have heard thus far.


Princess Alpenrose said...

Okay, well I was there too. I met Charles, and suspected Jens lurking over ... THERE!

As I wrote on my blog, I enjoyed the Vaughn Williams, the Finzi (less so, don't know what it is that sometimes irritates me about F.) and, as I said, the Peebles.

I would have said that whether or not I knew the composer (well, we are fellow bloggers so we know each other um ... electronically.) We seem to have a musical/emotional affinity regardless of the format, I guess.

I must confess it took me a while to warm up to this voice, in this repertoire, too. As a singer, I'll say it may have taken him a while to warm up too.

I stayed because I always do. It's a matter of principle, a poit of pride. You never know what you're going to hear!

I cannot, however, say that I "know" or "understand" GP's work, having only heard these 3 songs, this one time. I only hazily suspect that I like it.

The one thing I wanted to bring to the table for consideration is this:

"How many hearings, how much of a new composer's works, of a new composer's idiom, of his or her musical language do we need to be exposed to before we can say that we know or understand it?"

(How many people liked Vaughn Williams the first time or Finzi or any other composer, for that matter?)