NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

May 31, 2013

Saving the art song

'Belle of Amherst' to be feted in musical recital

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — While there is no shortage of American art songs, the audience for them is disappearing.

“An art song is a poem which is set to music,” said Beverly Soll, artistic director of the Boston Singers’ Resource Recital Series. “My focus has been primarily on American art song, because I think in a sense the art song is dying in our country — which frightens me, because it’s some of the finest music.”

Over the past two years, Soll has organized a program of songs by composer John Duke, who taught at Smith College for many years until his death in 1984, and another featuring songs of the sea.

The third program in her series, “A Musical Portrait of Emily Dickinson,” which will be held at the home of John Archer on Sunday, will feature poems by Emily Dickinson that have been set to music by 10 composers from New England.

Soll, a chamber musician, accompanist and solo pianist, is an adjunct music faculty member at Salem State University and will accompany three singers at the recital.

“It’s a huge tradition that goes back to the classical period,” Soll said. “Franz Schubert wrote over 600, using poems by Heinrich Heine and Goethe. That’s the starting point.”

Soll offered several reasons why this tradition has suffered in the United States, despite an abundance of talented composers.

“There is not the classical culture anymore,” she said. “In that sense, people aren’t prepared for it, they aren’t studying music.”

On the other hand, singers are getting only perfunctory exposure to art songs in school before entering a market where the emphasis is mostly on opera and musical theater. As a result, when there are performances of art songs, they usually draw from “the old recital format from college, this formulaic stuff that isn’t interesting,” Soll said.

To help her audience connect with this music, Soll’s program includes materials about Dickinson that will be read between songs. These include “very personal” snippets from Dickinson’s own letters, and excerpts from letters and reminiscences to and about the poet by her family members, friends and neighbors.

“What I’m trying to create is a form based on art song, some kind of artistic entity” that combines singing and speaking, Soll said.

The songs, excerpts and narration are woven into a seamless whole, “so there should be no applause from beginning to end,” she said. “We’re really just introducing Miss Emily. The singers will tell a little bit about her life, and her thought. ...

“We’re not trying to give a big history lesson. We’re trying to be utterly charming; it’s almost like a conversation among the three singers.”

The poet lived her whole life in Amherst, from 1830 to 1886, and rarely left her house.

“She began to be a recluse, afraid of people, in her late teens and early 20s,” Soll said. “She was spiritual, but she didn’t worship God quite like her family did.”

The recital highlights the talents of three singers who are members of Boston Singers’ Resource, an online network serving classical singers throughout New England.

“It’s a little over 10 years old, the brainchild of Lynn Shane, a local performer and singer from Georgetown,” Soll said.

The event will raise money for a relief fund for members of the singing community who are struggling with job loss or health problems.

This concert features soprano Stephanie Mann, a graduate of Brandeis and The Boston Conservatory, who will appear this summer with the Boston Opera Collaborative in Rossini’s “Cinderella.”

Mezzo-soprano Roselin Osser, who has appeared with the Greater New Bedford Choral Society and other regional companies, will also perform.

She and Mann will be joined by Leslie Tay, a tenor born in Singapore who debuted at Carnegie Hall with New York Lyric Opera.

These singers appreciate the opportunity to sing art songs, Soll said, and they also enjoy delivering the spoken material she has assembled around them.

“When you take singers who’ve been doing opera a lot, and here they are just speaking, it took them some time to get used to that,” she said. “It feels so different, so exposed.”

Soll also believes that, although the composers are modern, their music will appeal to a wide audience.

“You’re going to find it’s loving music, it’s not atonal ‘honk, squeak,’” Soll said. “We lull people into a sense of security. They’re not going to be scared.”

IF YOU GO

What: A Musical Portrait of Emily Dickinson

When: Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m.

Where: Home of John Archer, 10 North St., Danvers

To benefit: Boston Singers’ Relief Fund

Admission: Suggested donation of $20 will be collected at the door.

More information and reservations: Reservations recommended, by calling 978-352-5058 or by emailing info@BostonSingersResource.org.