Self-proclaimed “ladies of new music” Jessica Rivera and Kelley O’Connor performed a song recital with pianist Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s music director, at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center on Thursday evening. The trio inaugurated its recital tour in Berkeley, California, last Sunday and is set to perform at several more venues across the country this season.
Rivera and O’Connor are both in their prime and wildly gifted. Rivera is well known for her portrayal of Kitty Oppenheimer in John Adams’ opera “Doctor Atomic” at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, while just last month O’Connor sang the title role in Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” at Ravinia. But despite schedules heavy with contemporary music, neither singer has been limited by them. Rivera will sing Mozart and Mahler this season, and O’Connor will tour with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra singing Beethoven’s Mass in C.
Both halves of the KSU recital began in duet. The understated elegance of Saint-Saëns’ “El desdichado” and Gounod’s “La Siesta” came first. Rivera’s soprano shimmers above the staff, a perfect complement to the depth and scuro inherent in mezzo-soprano O’Connor’s voice. The two admirably synchronized their dynamics and vibrato, shaping phrases with the utmost care. At the start of the second half, the audience heard two selections from Mendelssohn’s “Six Lieder for voice and piano Op. 63.”
Standard vocal repertoire played a diminutive role in the evening. Nevertheless, it was the high point of the program. O’Connor’s interpretation of the “Chansons de Bilitis” by Debussy left nothing wanting. She delivered every word penned by poet Pierre Louÿs with the utmost care, infusing them with both the sensuality and innocence that one hopes for in these songs. “La Cheveleure,” a poem about erotic love, was especially climactic, as the mezzo recounted her lover’s dream, cushioned by syncopated piano figures from Spano.
Rivera offered a riveting display of vocal beauty in Frederic Mompou’s song cycle about loss, “Combat del somni.” Chromaticism is laced throughout these songs, leaving the audience unsettled at times, as in “Damunt de tu només les flors,” and legato singing is paramount, as is the role of the piano in creating a gentle, sweeping sense throughout. Spano mastered this, aptly personifying the sea in “Jo et pressentia com la mar.”
Rivera, O’Connor and Spano clearly have a passion for serving as ambassadors of contemporary song. They showcased two song cycles written especially for them.
Rivera sang Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Monica Songs,” which were highly unsatisfying. The text selections are eclectic and include verses from the Book of Ruth, poems by e.e. cummings and the incomparable Emily Dickinson, as well as personal letters between a mother and daughter. Unfortunately, Leshnoff seems unable to allow the natural speech inflection of the poetry to reflect in the text setting. The premise of the cycle is provocative, but Leshnoff composed music that is not idiomatic to the voice and paired it with an unsupportive and minimalistic piano accompaniment. The cycle is nearly devoid of musical-poetic synthesis.
A stark contrast to this was heard in the second half with David Bruce’s four songs from “That Time With You,” settings of poetry by Glyn Maxwell. The standout of this cycle is the final song, “Bring Me Again.” Here O’Connor was supplied with a plaintive, dirge-like ballad, at times Gershwinesque, which allowed her to open up and employ some full-out operatic singing. The entire cycle is exceedingly well suited to her voice, incorporating choice leaps and tasteful melismatic passages here and there. It’s a song cycle that should be heard again and again.
Rivera and O’Connor concluded this comprehensive recital with two of Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Kitchen Songs,” “Honey” and “Sofrito,” and an encore that appealed to everyone, the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck’s fanciful “Hansel and Gretel.”