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Beautifully and lavishly produced, this disc showcases the music of Lita Grier, a composer whose life has had a 30-year hiatus in creative output. Grier won first prize in the New York Philharmonic Young Composer's Contest aged just 16 (while studying at Juilliard). Her postgraduate time at UCLA enabled her to work with Lucas Foss and Roy Harris. The conservative bent of her musical expression (certainly when heard against the serialists of the 1960s) meant she felt more comfortable in the fields of artist management, PR, and broadcasting. Her reawakening occurred in the 1990s, and the rest is history. The Chicago Tribune named her as "Chicagoan of the Year" in 2005.
This is the first recording exclusively devoted to Grier's music. Her songs span her creative output and so make a particularly fitting vehicle for this conspectus. Although the disc begins with Five Songs for Children, it is Sneezles, a 1972 piece scored for soprano, oboe, percussion, and piano, that sums up her wonderful sense of humor best. The Five Songs displays an artful simplicity. Try especially the rocking rhythms of "The Sea Shell," to a poem by Amy Lowell, or the light-as-a-feather final song, "The Bluebird" (Emily Huntingdon Miller). Although some of the songs date from 1962 and some from 1999, there is a remarkable stylistic congruence between them. Sneezles is the one work that dates from the middle of Grier's inactive period. The scoring immediately widens the sonic canvas. The majority of the song seems to make reference to the sound world of Weill, something that surprised me. It adds a slightly disturbing, adult layer to a song whose text is clearly meant to entertain children. Michelle Areyzaga is superb in her faultless diction and, most important, in her fine spirit.
The poems of A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman have inspired a number of composers. This set of five, set for baritone and piano, finds an ideal exponent in Robert Sims, whose gentle, rounded baritone seems perfect for the slightly nostalgic setting of the wistful poetry. The hushed beauty of this music is a revelation. Again, a moment of humor (the third song, "Think no more, lad; laugh, be jolly," stands out in balance of the prevailing restraint). William Billingham is the ever-sensitive accompanist on this occasion. If the poetry here appeals, a Hyperion Dyad release of songs that sets poems from A Shropshire Lad is available on Hyperion 22044. Composers there are Barber, Lennox Berkeley, Butterworth, Horder, Ireland, Moeran, and C. W. Orr.
Areyzaga's light soprano emerges as high contrast in the two Dickinson songs, set while Grier was at UCLA. The two poems are "I cannot live with you" and "I taste a liquor never brewed." The first receives a porcelain-delicate setting that is shattered by the acerbic harmonies that underpin "And I, could I stand by/And see you freeze." Particularly impressive in this song is the accompaniment of Welz Kauffman (although Areyzaga's control in the slow, perilous, unaccompanied final gestures is eminently noteworthy too). The second song operates in high contrast: "I taste a liquor never brewed" is a response to nature, far more intoxicating than any alcohol.
Grier's longest work to date is the Songs from Spoon River, settings of poetry from Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. The first four songs and the finale were premiered in 2004 and dedicated to the Ravinia Festival's centennial year celebration. Songs 6 through 9 resulted from a subsequent commission, while song 5 was added in 2009 in commemoration of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. The texts reveal scandalous lifestyles in rural Illinois. Apart from the first and last songs ("The Hill," Parts I and II), all of the other movements introduce various (dead) characters and tell their stories. The songs are distributed between two sopranos, a tenor, and two baritones. The hypnotic opening song ("All are sleeping on the hill" for tenor), intriguingly introduces the listener to the inhabitants of a cemetery with a dirge-like gait. That Scott Ramsay can imbue this with a sense of contained beauty is testament to how carefully these chosen singers have been considered for this recording. There is a death motif here that reappears at various points in the cycle. The entry of a soprano for "Sarah Brown," the second song, is pure genius, a ray of exquisite vocal light. Despite the message of a radiant afterlife of the text ("my soul lies rapturous in the blest Nirvana of eternal light"), the overall feel of the song is sadness. After a suave soprano introduction to the fate of "Lucinda Matlock," all six voices join together in "Anne Rutledge" to portray "the vibrations of deathless music." It sounds a little as if some of the singers are trying to outdo each other with how much vibrato they can use at the line "Shining with justice and truth." There is some magnificent piano playing in "Petit, the Poet" (a poet who cannot stop obsessing over poetic meter, even in death), and the tenor Scott Ramsay narrates beautifully. Spoken and sung words are used in the penultimate song, "Rita Matlock Gruenberg" before the ensemble number, "The Hill, Part II" brings us back to where these people are now: "Sleeping on the Hill." That Songs from Spoon River hangs together so well is testament to Grier's skill in the song-cycle genre. It makes for a most satisfying, not to mention poignant, whole.
Finally, settings of five poems by the short-lived Mattie J. T. Stepanek (1990-2004) for children's choir, collectively titled Reflections of a Peacemaker. Stepanek was old way beyond his years (he died just before his 14th birthday) and celebrated life and joy in everything he encountered. Some of the poems are astonishing in their depth (particularly "Eternal Role Call"); everywhere, there is hope. The message of the final song, "I AM," seems to sum it all up as it celebrates each person's individuality. The deceptive simplicity of Grier's settings is part and parcel of their magic.
The recording (producer James Ginsburg and Bill Maylone) is exemplary. All texts are included, as is a detailed essay by Ted Hatmaker of Northern Illinois University. -- Colin Clarke, Fanfare, Jan-Feb 2010
Chicago's Lita Grier has written a large body of vocal music, much of it receiving world-premiere recordings here. Included is the 10-part "Songs from Spoon River," based on Edgar Lee Masters' poetry and recorded at Ravinia's Bennett-Gordon Hall. The Chicago Children's Choir is featured in the six-part "Reflections of a Peacemaker."
Subtitled "Elliott Carter at 100," this is another of Cedille's important 2009 releases. Carter, who noted his 100th birthday in December 2008, is one of America's most celebrated composers, and former Northwestern University professor Ursula Oppens (now at Brooklyn College) brings to the CD the music she performed at a series of Carter centennial concerts in New York. -- Daily Herald, Bill Gowen, January 2010
This is a very pleasing recital of vocal music as well as a happy introduction to American composer Lita Grier. Now based in Chicago, Grier was a celebrated young Juilliard-trained composer in the 1960s when, like many others at that time, she grew so disenchanted with the censorious and ultimately oppressive cult of serialism and uncompromising atonality that had so thoroughly captured the minds (if not always the hearts) of the arbiters of classical music style that she left composing and channeled her musical talents and interests elsewhere. In the 1990s she returned to composing, acknowledging new commissions and succumbing to demands of musician colleagues for new works to add to the already established ones from her early career. This recording features songs--and a set of five pieces for children's choir (to poems by Mattie Stepanek)--from as early as 1955 (Five Songs from A Shropshire Lad) and as recently as 2007/08 (Songs from Spoon River and the previously mentioned children's choir set).
Perhaps partly a reflection of her early development, Grier's songs are not about "tunes" but rather seem to take form from textual rhythms and inflections, the linear shape of the vocal line taking direct cues from the poetry rather than being imposed by the composer's melodic preconception. I say this is how it seems, because these songs--whether from 1962 or 2007--impress with their uncontrived spontaneity and sensitivity to words that's not always easy to achieve when writing songs to English texts.
Although most of these songs are not "about" tunes, that doesn't mean they aren't "tuneful"--and attractively so; in fact, Grier's experience in writing for musical theatre shows quite tellingly and engagingly in songs such as The Bluebird, Sneezles (text from A.A. Milne), and I AM (Mattie Stepanek), the latter of which you could imagine as the big closer to a Broadway show. Other songs, such as Someone (the famous Walter de la Mare poem), Petit the Poet, and Margaret Fuller Slack (the latter two texts from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology), show the more nuanced, multilayered sophistication of the most refined songwriter, reminding us that Grier was--and is--the real thing, and we can be glad that she's back as a full-time composer.
She's also fortunate to have some very fine singers and pianists to present her work on this recording. Sopranos Michelle Areyzaga (who performs the majority of the songs) and Elizabeth Norman are both superb, their technique solid and their voices eminently listenable (and I don't often say this about sopranos!); baritone Robert Sims is also first rate (and he shows off some wonderful falsetto), but he also has a couple of the less ingratiating songs in the Shropshire Lad set, where Grier's music sometimes seems at odds with the text. Both pianists--Welz Kauffman and William Billingham--are sensitive, reliable partners, and the Chicago Children's Choir should receive some kind of medal for the wonderful things they do, not only on recordings such as this but in their various ongoing programs that bring young people together to sing great music.
While you may understandably have been unaware of Lita Grier's music during the past 30 years, here's your chance to correct the situation--and to show your support for a composer who held out for creative integrity over blind devotion to faddish, stylistic conformity. You've gotta love that--and you'll really enjoy this well-conceived, excellently performed program. Highly recommended! -- ClassicsToday.com, David Vernier, October 2009