Some Dream Songs

Some Dream Songs – Review

Robert J. Harrison

James Dashow. Some Dream Songs. Joan Logue, soprano; Maria Buffa, violin; Giancarlo Simonacci, piano.

Winners of the 1983, 1984, and 1985 American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters composer awards are featured on this CRI compact disc. Sixty-seven minutes long, this disc consists of three contemporary vocal works. Represented are James Dashow (the 1983 winner), a Chicago-born composer and student of Milton Babbitt, Edward Cone, and Arthur Berger; Bruce Saylor (the 1984 winner), a Philadelphian composer and now a professor of composition at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College; and Ezra Sims (the 1985 winner), a former student of G. Ackley Brower, Hugh Thomas, and Darius Milhaud.

Some Dream Songs by James Dashow is the opening work. Composed in 1975, this group of six brief, transparently composed songs for soprano, violin, and piano is set to the texts of John Berryman, and taken from Berryman’s book, Dream Songs. Collectively, the poems poignantly illustrate the complex and cynical personal nature of the work’s featured individual, Henry–his “huffy … unappeasable” manner; his sense of loss; his boredom; his crazed demeanor; and his “wintered” but ever-moving nature.

The voice of soprano Joan Logue is perfectly suited to deliver the varied complexities of this possibly common character. Provocative dialogues and trialogues among the voice, violin (Mario Buffa), and piano (Giancarlo Simonacci), written in a disjunctive yet lyrical atonal style, underscore the multifaceted Henry. One of the work’s most noteworthy moments occurs within the second song. A trialogue between the three performers, with an impressive rapid-fire alternation of speech and song skillfully performed by Logue, results in a riveting image of the suicidal Henry. This movement alone is worth the price of the disc. Logue’s singing is not only clean and well produced, but demonstrates well that diction can be intelligible at the highest and lowest pitch levels. Both Buffa and Simonacci are at their best in this excellent and spellbinding recording.

Bruce Saylor’s craftfully composed cycle, Songs from Water Street (1980), was commissioned by the American poet J. D. McClatchy, who requested a composition to honor poet and friend James Merrill. Five of Merrill’s dramatically picturesque texts, taken from his collection Water Street, are the centerpiece of Saylor’s work. The cycle is simply scored for voice (Constance Beavon, mezzo-soprano), viola (Miles Hoffman), and piano (David Abramovitz). Creating a work that has a classically balanced form, Saylor sets the odd-numbered songs in trio texture; the two even-numbered songs are duets between voice and viola, and voice and piano, respectively. The clear “winner” in this recorded performance, if music should have such individuals, is Miles Hoffman. His sensitive viola playing is some of the very best I have heard. It is impeccably in tune, and his performance of the cycle’s difficult virtuosic passages is nothing short of remarkable. The same must be said of pianist David Abramovitz; his playing is artful, clean, and energetic throughout the performance. Fewer accolades are extended to Constance Beavon, whose voice is of the necessary size for this occasionally thick-textured dramatic work, but whose diction is not at all clear enough to convey the interesting messages of Merrill’s poems. Throughout her performance, I found Beavon’s singing dark and her vibrato excessively wide–the primary causes for her inability to clearly declaim the texts. The printed texts to which I often referred were a necessary aid.

Come Away (1978), an extended twenty-one-minute work for voice and chamber ensemble, concludes this disc. The composer, Ezra Sims, skillfully selected five poems, each beginning with the invitation, “Come …,” and created a textually well-cohered composition. Well-known poems of Thomas Campion, “Come, O come, my life’s delight” and “Come, chearfull day,” as well as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s “Come, Sleep,” Thomas Hardy’s “Come again to the place,” and Walt Whitman’s “Come lovely and soothing death” create the textual center for this set of uninterrupted songs. Unlike the previous works on this disc, Sims’s composition is microtonal. Due to a lack of recording ambience, the performance appears dry and distant, resulting in a recording that is not at all times interesting. The singing of soprano Janice Felty is dark, and it appears to have been recorded at too low a level. As a result, I found myself returning to the printed texts for clarification on an all-too-frequent basis. The work is a musically interesting one, but sadly, I cannot say the same for the amateur reading of it by the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, conducted by David House.

This CD is certainly not one of CRI’s best projects. The lack of a consistently high level of performance, coupled with a sporadic lack of good recording quality, results in a disc that is inferior to the company’s many other celebrated recordings.

Robert J. Harrison

University of Colorado at Boulder

COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Illinois Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group