Saturday 25 September 2021

Lucas & Irina Meachem's new disc celebrates American art songs & helps promotes representation & diversity in the arts through their new foundation

Irina and Lucas Meachem (Photo Nate Ryan)
Irina and Lucas Meachem (Photo Nate Ryan)
The American baritone Lucas Meachem's schedule for 2021 has rather reflected the changes that the pandemic has brought to the arts. His opera appearances have included appearing as Figaro (something of a signature role) in Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla in a drive-in performance from San Francisco Opera, and a relatively last-minute stand-in for the title role of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at Santa Fe Opera as the planned baritone fell foul of travel restrictions. 

Lucas has also been busy in the studio too, releasing his first recital disc. A collection of American art songs on the theme of resilience and togetherness, Shall We Gather on the Rubicon label is billed as 'A Collection of American Art Songs Celebrating Resilience and Togetherness' and it is very much a passion project for Lucas and his wife pianist Irina Meachem, who accompanies him on the disc. And all proceeds from the album are going to Lucas and Irina's new foundation, Perfect Day Music Foundation, which brings awareness to and promotes representation and diversity in the arts. I caught up with Lucas and Irina by Zoom to find out a little more.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana) and Lucas Meachem (Eugene Onegin) - Santa Fe Opera, 2021 (Photo: Curtis Brown)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana) and Lucas Meachem (Eugene Onegin)
Santa Fe Opera, 2021 (Photo: Curtis Brown)

The repertoire on Shall We Gather is eclectic, with works by Gene Scheer, Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), John Musto, Richard Hageman(1881-1966), Jake Heggie, Carrie Jacob-Bonds (1862-1946), Ricky Ian Gordon, William Grant Still (1895-1978), Kurt Weill (1900-1950), Florence Price (1887-1953), Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Stephen Foster (1826-1924), with an emphasis on 20th-century and contemporary music. 

Only half jokingly, Lucas suggests that the choice of repertoire was partly because classic songs such as those by Schumann and Brahms have already been recorded. But he and Irina wanted a project which would highlight what it is to be American. They see a rift within the world with people building walls between each other, and wanted a project which would emphasise that it is healthy to have different opinions. And as Lucas points out, in the USA it is legal to differ politically unlike in some countries in the world.

So the selection of songs does not point to a single, monolithic idea of what it is to be American, but shows the many ways. Partly, this reflects the Meachems themselves as Lucas is native of North Carolina whereas Irina is the daughter of immigrants. Their new disc reflects the many ways that we have of coming together.

When putting together the repertoire for the disc, they had to accept that they could not include every song the wanted and that the disc is only a start. But from the outset, their rule was that they would include only songs that moved them so that it became a disc to heal and inspire. After all, if the song does not move the performers then it is difficult for them to move an audience. They tried to narrow the possible songs down a bit, but it was still a challenge. Also, they wanted a modern take on the repertoire to reflect the American art song of 2020 (the year the disc was recorded), and each piece paints a different picture of Americanism. In part, reflecting the power of music to tell a story, or rather a variety of different stories. A few of the songs on the disc, such as Shenandoah, were already in Lucas and Irina's repertoire, whilst others, such as William Grant Still's Grief have become standards. 

And there are also the songs that got away, that they now wish they had included, an indication of the sheer amount of under-represented repertoire there is. And this was why they created their Perfect Day Music Foundation, to focus attention away from the traditional repertoire.

To create the disc, Lucas and Irina went on something of a journey of discovery, exploring the many overlooked American art songs and it is this journey which is reflected in their creation of the foundation. They want to be able to inspire other singers to look further. One of the means of doing it is via the foundation's annual Virtual Voice Competition. This gets singers to submit a recording to win a cash prize, the last competition was for songs by composers of African descent, whilst the next one will be for songs by women composers. The whole is done via social media, the foundation's aim is to use social media as a platform for exploring the repertoire.

Whilst Lucas and Irina emphasise that in exploring repertoire, it is the journey not the destination that is important, they have used the experience of the most recent Virtual Voice Competition to create a resource page on the foundation's website for songs by composers of African descent, and they will do the same for the next competition. They want this to be a tool to encourage performers to explore a bit further, both younger ones and more established ones, and to make this easier.

Shall we gather - Lucas & Irina Meachem - Rubicon
The album was released on 24 September 2021, and prior to that there were two singles released including Jake Heggie's 'That moment on' (with a text by Gene Scheer) from his Pieces of 9/11 which was issued as a single to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 [Spotify]. 

When I ask them what next, they laugh and Lucas responds with 'Please, nothing!' Creating and producing the album has been a considerable amount of work. The easiest part was the actual music-making, but the production, engineering, emails and more required work. There were many moving parts, so do undertake another similar project would require one that they were both passionate about.

They are both perfectionists, so the creation of the recording involved quite a few edits, and whilst they acknowledge that their approach to music is different with Lucas being, perhaps, more instinctive, they both were striving for the perfect take. But Lucas also adds that there are some takes which were included that were not strictly perfect, but the performance reflected the emotional character of the music.

It was their first recording together, and they have developed a productive relationship when making music together, but they admit that this was something they had to learn, to help each other. And they are proud of this achievement, when first performing together they had to learn to respect each other as musicians, and develop a common language. 

Lucas spends most of his time on the operatic stage and does recitals every so often. The two are very different disciplines, in opera you have three or four hours to tell a story whereas in song you have three or four minutes. Songs require absolute focus, but are very rewarding.

The launch concert for the disc, on 24 September, was at Owens Auditorium, Bradshaw Performing Arts Center, Sandhills College, Pinehurst, in Lucas' home state of North Carolina, in the music centre where he did his first audition and went to his first concerts.

Shall we gather: songs by Gene Scheer, Arthur Farwell, John Musto, Richard Hageman, Jake Heggie, Carrie Jacob-Bonds, Ricky Ian Gordon, William Grant Still, Kurt Weill, Florence Price, Aaron Copland, Stephen Foster - Lucas Meachem, Irina Meachem - Rubicon Classics RCD1071 - Link Tree.

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