Thursday 30 September 2021

From letters by Edna St Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson to pictures by women artists, composer Juliana Hall's inspirations are highly diverse in this disc of four of her song cycles

Bold Beauty - songs by Juliana Hall; Molly Fillmore, Elvia Puccinelli; Blue Griffin

Bold Beauty
- songs by Juliana Hall; Molly Fillmore, Elvia Puccinelli; Blue Griffin

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 September 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A welcome chance to explore four of American composer Juliana Hall's over 60 song cycles, with an intriguing mix of texts

American composer Juliana Hall has been highly prolific when it comes to song-writing, she has written some 60 song-cycles plus other vocal works which represents a remarkable dedication to the song form. And these are real art songs, not contemporary popular lyrics. Yet, we hear very little of her music in the concert hall in the UK. Thanks to singers like Kitty Whately and Nadine Benjamin, I have heard a number of Juliana Hall's songs, yet don't think I have ever come across one of Hall's complete cycles in the concert hall.

This disc from Blue Griffin Records, Bold Beauty, features four of Juliana Hall's song cycles performed by soprano Molly Fillmore and pianist Elvia Puccinelli. The cycles span a considerable period of Hall's career, Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush (1989), Theme in Yellow (1990), Letters from Edna (1993) and Cameos (2017/18). And they demonstrate an intriguing attitude to texts as both Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush and Letters from Edna use writers' letters as the source of the words, the first Emily Dickinson, the second Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Theme in Yellow uses a more varied selection of texts, all poems on the theme of Autumn but with a concentration of Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) whilst the final cycle on the disc, Cameos sets lovely aphoristic texts by the singer on this disc, Molly Fillmore.

Hall seems to have been destined for song from the outset, she studied at Yale as a piano major, having composition lessons 'for fun', where her composition teachers included Martin Bresnick, Leon Kirchner, and Frederic Rzewski and it was partly at their urging that she moved to composition full time. Then she studied with Dominick Argento, himself a very fine song composer, at the University of Minnesota, where she received a commission for a cycle for Dawn Upshaw in 1989

What is remarkable is that Hall's voice throughout all the songs seems to remain remarkably consistent. She writes in an intelligently complex tonal style, her vocal lines moving around the words with the piano supporting and commenting. The result fits the sort of stream-of-consciousness of the letter settings very well. 

We begin with the Edna St Vincent Millay cycle, Letters from Edna which brings together settings of eight letters, all rather sharp and witty, larding the serious and the pointed. Fillmore's diction is excellent, so that as we listen to the cycle unfold we really get the sense of Edna's voice. I have heard individual songs from this cycle, but Hall's particular narrative approach, following the text wherever it goes, repays concentrated listening across the whole span of the cycle.

 Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush was Hall's first setting of a sequence of letters; here we have seven letters by Emily Dickinson. The voice here is still recognisably Hall's but the overall tone is less sharp, not surprisingly as Dickinson was a less pointed writer than St Vincent Millay. But one of the reasons for Hall choosing the letters here was their sense of humour and playful whimsy, and that slightly wry sense comes over well. Whereas the St Vincent Millay cycle gives a sense of continuous narrative, the writer's stream-of-consciousness, here we have a series of striking, sometimes thoughtful moments in time, as we capture a shot of Dickinson's state of mind at the time. Each song exists as an entity in its own right, creating a mood and a moment.

With the opening song from Theme in Yellow, which sets one of Edna St Vincent Millay's poems, we find Hall's willingness to let the lyricism and melodic hints that we got from the earlier cycles flower into a full-blown lyrical song. Contrast is important here, both in terms of the different aspects of Autumn covered in the texts (by St Vincent Millay, Sandburg and Amy Lowell), but in terms of the style and emotion of each song, resulting in an attractively sequence of contrasted and complementary songs which provide an engaging sequence of thoughts about Autumn, including the delightful title song which sets a poem by Sandburg about pumpkins!

The final cycle on the disc, and the most recent, is Cameos which sets six of Molly Fillmore's poems. Hall originally set this as a cycle for soprano and piano but at Fillmore's request reworked it for mezzo-soprano and piano and though on the disc she is billed as a soprano, Fillmore sings this second version. There are six songs, each of which seem to be character sketches of people, women artists in fact (Sarah Albritton, Kay WalkingStick, Nellie Mae Rowe, Alice Dalton Brown, Agnes Pelton, and Corita Kent) and in her programme note Hall talks about the way the artworks themselves gave her a different perspective on the subjects. 

The six songs are each quite strongly developed and remarkably complex in conception and construction. I suspect that they would excerpt very well as individual songs. Though the musical voice is recognisable from the earlier cycles, what we also get here is a sense of those 30 years of musical development, the songs here are powerful and imaginative statements. Whether they are evocative of the original artists and their art matters not, what is important is that Hall has created a sequence of striking musical statements that have a real life in their own right.  It is perhaps significant, that of the songs on the disc, these are the ones with the most developed piano parts with the piano having a voice independent of the singer. You feel that most mezzo-sopranos should have this cycle in their repertoire, and I look forward to the chance to get to hear it live.

Juliana Hall (born 1958) - Letters from Edna (1993)
Juliana Hall - Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plus (1989)
Juliana Hall - Theme in Yellow (1990)
Juliana Hall - Cameos (2018)
Recorded 13-16 May 2019, Winspear Hall, University of North Texas
Molly Fillmore (soprano)
Elvia Puccinelli (piano)

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