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Griffey Catalogues American Song

Since his first recital with Vocal Arts Society a few years ago, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey has had considerable success on the operatic stage, as witnessed in his performance as Peter Grimes, both in Santa Fe and at the Metropolitan Opera. In his latest VAS recital, heard on Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, he offered a program that was the most successful heard so far in the VAS-sponsored American Music Festival. The selection of songs drew together many strands of American vocal music, from the simple folk songs of Appalachia to the most refined art songs of Charles Griffes and Samuel Barber, with a much more sophisticated harmonic vocabulary. Griffey's partner for most of the evening, Warren Jones, accompanied with just the right amount of supportive volume, although his one solo moment, a rather mediocre barcarolle by Griffes, was a little square.

During the opening set Griffey sat on the stage next to bluegrass musician Paul Brown, on fiddle and various banjos, to perform a few traditional songs. Humble accompanying figures, alternately slow and meditative or upbeat and twangy, were matched by Griffey's native southern pronunciation, drawn-out diphthongs and all. This seemed natural enough for Griffey, who was born in North Carolina and has spoken of the music teachers in the public schools of his youth as providing the foundation of his musical formation, although the voice was at times too large and present for its humble surroundings. Those songs led ingeniously to the op. 11 set of songs by Charles Griffes (1884-1920) on poems by Scottish poet William Sharp under the pseudonym Fiona MacLeod. (The Appalachian dialect may be a living remnant of the Elizabethan era Scottish-Irish way of speaking and pronouncing English.) The various influences on Griffes, including Wagnerian chromaticism and the vague, directionless harmony of Ravel and Debussy, are clear in these three songs. Griffey deployed his potent voice in several thrilling crescendi, although the top range was just slightly shredded at full volume (strain perhaps related to his lauded performance in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex last week).

It was a pleasure to mark the centenary of Samuel Barber (born March 9, 1910) with some of his James Joyce songs, regrettably only two of them, from the Three Songs of op. 10. (Gerald Finley also sang some Barber songs at his VAS recital earlier this spring, and Thomas Hampson has been championing them in his American song recitals.) Barber's harmonic vocabulary is so rich, and his understanding of the human voice and the way to render poetic language in music so innate, that his songs are a delight, especially when they are performed with this kind of intensity, bordering on mad-eyed lunacy in "I hear an army." In a way, Kenneth Frazelle's new song cycle Songs in the Rear View Mirror, the local debut of which concluded this recital, cannot hope to compete with the literary and musical sophistication of Barber's songs. Frazelle, who studied at one point with Roger Sessions, leans much more on vernacular idioms, both in the poems he wrote for the cycle and his easy-listening compositional style, part film score (think Michael Nyman's pulsating music for The Piano) and part minimalism (the piano part's imitation of the speech rhythm of the vocal line reminded of Steve Reich).

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Joe Banno, Griffey makes himself heard at Vocal Arts Society recital (Washington Post, May 7)
That did not prevent this cycle from having considerable emotional and musical appeal of its own particular kind. Frazelle, also from North Carolina, sets the story of an aimless narrator and his haunted memories of a troubled childhood in an idealized and nostalgic version of the American South. To set the images in the mind, the performers were set to one side of the stage to allow the projection of a few images created by William Christenberry, whose works are mentioned in the first poem, helping to set the stage, along with the photographs of Walker Evans and the writing of James Agee. Whimsical songs like the funky, bluesy rag "Kudzu" and "Road signs," with its shouts from the roadside markers of desperate produce salesman and the madcap oompah vamp of a revival song (concluded with a bang as pianist Jones smacked the final chord, spun around to face the audience, and shouted "Do you?"), balanced the narrator's more sober and saddening memories. It was a beautiful performance of a worthy and interesting new work, but in the inevitable comparison to a real classic of Southern memory, Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (set to a text by none other than James Agee), Frazelle's work is again outclassed. Two encores brought the audience full circle, with Copland's arrangement of Simple Gifts and a stirring rendition of This Little Light of Mine.

One more recital remains on the VAS season, another all-American program by baritone Stephen Salters and pianist David Zobel at the Austrian Embassy (May 26, 7:30 pm). The already announced 2010-2011 season will include recitals by Yuri Minenko, Sasha Cooke, Alice Coote, Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello, Joyce DiDonato, and Christine Brewer. For anyone who loves fine singing, this recital series is a must.

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