Words by Gene Scheer & Music by Jake Heggie
Commissioned by University of Kansas at Lawrence for mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, the song cycle takes as its point of departure an array of five interesting statues that, in effect, are brought to life in these songs.
Heggie’s music is tonal but with an angular sharpness. It eddied naturally around Gene Scheer’s words, not mimicking the poetry per se, but always illuminating the flow and weight of the text. The orchestration was crisp and minimal, with the edgy swing of Weill spiced by the rhythmic jauntiness of Bernstein in some sections. The final movement was a tour de force. Statuesque was an invigorating set, with Joyce Castle confidently conveying its sense of serious fun.
The evening's finale was "Statuesque," a set Heggie wrote for mezzo Joyce Castle, sung here by the fearless Christina Gill with a seven-piece ensemble. The texts by Gene Scheer (An American Tragedy) offered insights of five statues, from Henry Moore to the Winged Victory. Each, of course, had a different character, such as the jazzy walking bass and sexy clarinet solo of Moore's Reclining Figure, and the French humor of Picasso's Head of a Woman. Gill was a knockout – whether projecting the sinuous, mystical aura of Hatshepsut or the volcanic passion of Giacometti's Standing Woman. I think everyone's favorite, though, was Winged Victory, as Gill arched her back, arms raised, with a black stole to form wings, and the music took on a Kurt Weill cast. What a revelation.
Parsing which is more sensational, the artistry or the music, is beyond the point. Unexpected Shadows (Pentatone), the all-Heggie recital from mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, composer/pianist Jake Heggie, and cellist Matt Haimovitz, is destined to win multiple “Best Vocal Recital of the Year” awards as it makes the best possible case for the necessity and relevance of modern American classical song.