CASP started its concert series auspiciously last night at the Extension Room, with the pieces by three living composers (two Canadian and one American) and a mini-lieder cycle by Strauss. The common (broad) theme was women in extreme situations.
“The Living Spectacle” (2015) by Erik Ross, the three-song cycle based on Baudelaire’s poems (tr. Roy Campbell), was performed by soprano Ambur Braid and Steven Philcox at the piano. The songs vary in tone and evoke different moods. “The Death of Lovers” is a vast and bright piece that beautifully straddles sadness and serenity, never for a moment giving up one for the other. The soundscape of “The Evil Monk” is a more familiar Goth-ish territory, lower on the stave and with more dramatic accents, while “The Death of Artists” has an irresistible piano undercurrent similar to Michael Nyman’s Piano score. We all knew that Ambur Braid had splendid highs, but what perhaps we don’t get to hear as often is how attractive and meaty her lower register is. The songs showed what a fabulous chiaroscuro voice she is. Somebody cast her in some Verdi, stat.
She also sang Libby Larsen’s to me new and astounding “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII” (2000). Normally, the Tudor-cultural industry and the royal family marriages are low on my list of interests, but Larsen researched and chose the text carefully, and gave each queen music materials to reflect their personal story and historical context. Katherine of Aragon gets a fairly pious song; Boleyn a complex mix of beseeching, anger, resignation; Jane Seymour’s is on the sweet and simple side; Anne of Cleves’s couples its staccato piano and quick rhythm with an almost sarcastic text. Ambur Braid provided tons of useful background info in her funny introduction to how each of the wives hooked up with Henry (“I nerd out… Bear with me”), but mood changed from comedic to dramatic when she started singing. She voiced each queen with unreserved commitment and compassion—it was probably the emotional peak of the evening. Powerful! Larsen’s excellent cycle found an excellent ambassador.
Carla Huhtanen, the ‘black belt’ of contemporary vocal music (was it Brian Current who said it? It’s true) sang the other half of the program. She was tone perfect in Strauss’s Three Ophelia Songs (1918), sincere, conflicted, a genuinely lost womanchild. When she wasn’t singing, the piano (Steven Philcox) echoed her competing feelings.
She had even more to do in the staged and choreographed “Sewing the Earthworm” (2012) by Brian Harman, to the poetry by David James Brock. The piece is about a woman who has been diagnosed with a neurological disease and is noticing the first signs of physical deterioration. She starts off with her frequent activities—gardening and sewing—but they get disturbed, meddled and finally leak into one another, and an earthworm gets conceptually lost among seams and needles. The final segment shows a mind desperately seeking the thread (of meaning) while being lost in the ‘squirming and slithering’ of her remaining incoherent life impulses. Harman employs the prepared piano in some segments, and the soprano is expected to be humming, moaning and screaming alongside the singing. The repetitions, the unexpected beat changes and the pauses are used to great effect. It’s really an exciting piece, here heightened by the presence of a dancer (Jennifer Nichols) who is the woman’s spirit and who is laid to rest and buried in the soil in the final scene.
The Living Spectacle was commissioned by CASP and Peter Deeb in 2014. Sewing the Earthworm was commissioned by CASP in 2010. For more about CASP and its future concerts, head over here.