American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera, with pianist Myra Huang, has recently released a CD of songs by contemporary American composers titled Innocence/Experience. There are four , fairly contrasting, sets of songs by different composers. The first group are settings of texts by Garrison Keillor with music by Robert Aldridge. The texts are predictably sentimental and the music is rather retro. It sounds like it might have come from a musical comedy in the 1940s. It’s not inappropriate for the texts but seems a little out of time. It suits Rivera’s voice though. Her strength is definitely in the lower register where there is a pleasing smokey tone.
The second group of songs is A Cuban in Vermont; both texts and music by Jorge Martin. These settings have plenty of blues and jazz elements and some interesting things happening rhythmically. They don’t seem to suit Rivera as well as the Aldridge pieces. She really does not have a “bluesy” sound and, on top of that, the transition from her lower voice to a somewhat fluttery higher register seems a bit exposed here.
Glen Roven’s settings of two poems by Edna St. Vincent Millais are quite varied with some modernistic touches that add variety. They also sit quite high for a mezzo and Rivera’s diction is challenged. I’m not sure one should need the texts in front of one when listening to English language art song but here they are essential.
The final set are Blake texts with music by Herschel Garfein. The texts are all really well known and have been set umpteen times so in many ways it’s a bold thing to do. A new setting of Jerusalem is certainly little short of hubristic. Actually the settings are quite interesting and inventive though perhaps a little Victorian parlourish. Certainly they are much less “modern” sounding than the Britten cycle composed fifty years earlier. I think also that it will be a while though before I can listen to this Jerusalem setting free enough of pre-conceptions to really appreciate it.
It’s terrific that contemporary art song is being recorded and we should be grateful to all concerned for making this rep more widely available. I am still a bit puzzled that so much American contemporary music seems rather retro. It’s not what I see on this side of the border.