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Stephanie Blythe's Monochromatic 'American Songbook'

available at Amazon
Brahms, Wagner, Mahler: Songs of Love and Sorrow, S. Blythe, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, J. Nelson
(re-released, 2011)
Vocal Arts D.C. opened its new season last night with a somewhat disappointing recital by Stephanie Blythe, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Not disappointing because of the celebrated mezzo-soprano's voice, which makes a glorious sound, but because the repertory, a survey of the "American Songbook," was really not the sort of music one would ideally like to hear her sing (and therefore not among our top picks for the month). To be sure, she sang all of it well, and she has enough personality and vocal heft to bring a recitation of the phone book to life, meaning that her handling of this lighter material was more compelling than most opera singers who half-ass their way through jazz and Broadway standards. It could have been worse -- Blythe's other American Songbook recital is devoted to Kate Smith.

In her program note, Blythe explained that the kernel of the recital was in the opening work, a set of songs by James Legg (1962-2000) on the wry, sometimes bleak poetry of Emily Dickinson. Legg, who composed these songs with Blythe's voice in mind, set the texts thoughtfully and with an ear to the poetry -- which Blythe and her able accompanist, Warren Jones, put front and center by reciting the poems before they performed the songs and not including the texts in the program. The musical idiom was tonal, jazzy, and a little saccharine, and one had the sense that if it were not Blythe at the helm the result would have been a lot more boring. In the final song, 'Tis not that dying hurts us so, you could hear Legg searching for something profound to bring the set to a satisfying end, but he did not find it. This point was brought home even more by the Samuel Barber set of James Joyce songs, op. 10, that followed it. Barber, a far superior composer, accomplished much more in just three songs of much greater variety, with especially the booming, martial final piece, I Hear an Army, cutting through the sugary aftertaste of everything that had come before it.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Mezzo Stephanie Blythe sang big in a small hall (Washington Post, September 17)

Joshua Kosman, Stephanie Blythe: poetry and pizzazz (San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 2011)

Georgia Rowe, Mezzo-Soprano Stephanie Blythe: One in a Million (San Francisco Classical Voice, October 13, 2011)
The Barber was the exception in a rather narrow view of what exactly the American Songbook is. In this case it was essentially one style, that of one strain of American popular song, heard in a second half of zippy songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Ray Henderson, Lew Brown, and Buddy DeSylva. (That the performers did not feel the need to recite the poetry in the second half spoke volumes about the difference between the two halves.) Jazz standards like these are at their best templates for more improvised performances than what Blythe and Jones could present, in which a classic song is the basis for a re-creation of something new. Cranking up the loud, nasal side of her voice, Blythe channeled something of the sound of Ethel Merman, and her storytelling gift and boisterous sense of humor were assets in Porter's hilarious Song of the Oyster, for example, but by the standards of jazz performers, it was bland stuff. The same was true of Jones's slightly lackluster technique in a "dizzy fingers"-style piece by Zez Confrey.

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