“Don’t blame the mirror for your own ugly mug.” The Russian proverb rang true during a concert at the Whitney Humanities Center Wednesday afternoon. Presented by IGIGI, an organization which promotes Yale College composers, and the Yale Literary Magazine, the program featured musical settings of texts penned by Yale College writers and composers. The art known as song setting is the marriage of musical composition with poetry. While the current trend among young composers is to distract the listener from their work’s musical substance with cavalier instrumental combinations, the classical pairing of voice and piano provided no such luxury, instead offering an undistorted reflection of the composers’ merits and faults.
The strongest material came earliest in the program. “Rabbit Hunt,” a song by Benjamin Peterson ’15 with text by Orlando Hernandez ’13, began the afternoon. It is an admirable achievement. One is immediately struck by Peterson’s piquant harmonic language, inventive melodies and resourceful piano writing, inviting comparison with our country’s most esteemed contributor to the recent art song repertoire, Ned Rorem. At times the piano figuration, tinged with playful dissonance, became cloying, and the flow of the dramatic thread was fettered by a couple of awkward phrases, but these can be taken as growing pains from a youthful composer, sure to be a passing phase. Peterson’s music develops organically from Hernandez’s percussive diction. Given his natural affinity for text setting, one would be wise to follow his career, which will hopefully include more vocal literature.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was “Down and Out in Paris,” the penultimate item on the program. The song is a setting of text excerpted from a piece of journalistic prose about Parisian squatters. Choosing to set prose is in itself a dangerous move for any composer, but when the piece in question relies so heavily on political platitudes, the decision is questionable. As a result, the work contained all the weaknesses of Leonard Bernstein’s radical chic musical aesthetic, with none of the strengths. Certainly, even when Bernstein was at his most pedestrian, he could still write a hell of a tune. The song’s most interesting melody, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, was drowned by pedantic passages stemming from a dearth of invention on the composer’s part. At one point, the singer spoke rather than sung the text while assuming a character resembling the coquettish Cunégonde from, incidentally, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” During one of these moments, the piano simply held the damper pedal while manually plucking out glissandi across the piano’s harp, amounting to a compositional cop-out. Had the composer been working with a stronger text, these narrative asides may have been acceptable, but deployment of this technique demanded far more than the prose had to offer. Using controversial politics as a substitute for creative imagination — as the piece seemed to do — seldom gets you far.
Pieces by Stephen Feigenbaum ’12 and Gabriel Zucker ’12 offered sentimental aural guises to American-themed texts by Sarah Matthes ’12 and Lindsay Gellman ’12, respectively. Martina Crouch’s ’14 “Morning” was set to music by Nick Baskin ’14, a task made difficult by the wandering nature of Crouch’s verse. Among the performers soprano Marisa Karchin ’14 projected a generous instrument, while soprano Bonnie Antosh’s ’13 charming voice was pleasant to listen to.
All of the songs seemed to have an uncomfortable relationship with the text, much like young lovers still getting used to one another. Peterson negotiated this hurdle the best out of the bunch, but all the composers on the program could afford to study some recent examples of ingenious settings of verse (Thomas Adès and Mohammed Fairouz come to mind). Yet the program was nonetheless fascinating, if anything to see how these young creative personalities would fare when working within the confines of such an honest and uncompromising musical medium.