Wednesday 27 October 2021

dream.risk.sing: Samantha Crawford and Lana Bode explore women's lives in song at Oxford Lieder Festival

dream.risk.sing - Lana Bode, Samantha Crawford - Oxford Lieder Festival
dream.risk.sing - Lana Bode, Samantha Crawford - Oxford Lieder Festival

- Dvorak, Judith Weir, Charlotte, Bray, Carson Cooman, Ricky Ian Gordon, Helen Grime, Florence Price, Michele Brourman; Samantha Crawford, Lana Bode; Oxford Lieder Festival (on-line)

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 October 2021
Two young performers in a personal project to explore women's lives in the concert hall, using song to look at topics as various as motherhood, discrimination and loss, complex and striking subjects with some powerful contemporary responses

Soprano Samantha Crawford and pianist Lana Bode's dream.risk.sing is very much a personal project, aimed at creating a song recital which explored women's experiences. Predominantly, though not necessarily women composers, but music which takes women's lives as its subject matter rather than the purely masculine gaze of much of the classic repertoire. Crawford and Bode developed the programme during 2020 and will be recording it for Delphian Records in 2022.

On Wednesday 20 September 2021, Samantha Crawford and Lana Bode debuted dream.risk.sing at a late-night concert at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival. The programme included music by Dvorak, Carson Cooman, Ricky Ian Gordon, Helen Grime, Florence Price and Michele Brourman, plus songs from a new version of Judith Weir's and the premiere of a newly commission cycle by Charlotte Bray. We caught the recital on catch-up, via the Oxford Lieder Festival website.

The repertoire was very much in the contemporary, with only Dvorak providing a nod to classic repertoire, and a Florence Price song providing a welcome continuation of the exploration of her neglected output. This emphasis is not surprising, in the 19th century female composers were often concerned to match their male counterparts, and songs often evoke elements of the male gaze. What wouldn't we give to have a response to Schumann and Chamisso's Frauen-liebe und Leben from Clara Schumann and a contemporary woman poet!

We began with Dvorak's Songs my mother taught me, which introduced us to Crawford's vibrant, lyric voice with both her and Bode making a rich sound in this song. But having heard a couple of recitals live at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building at this year's festival [see my review], the sound also suggested the limitations of listening on-line rather than live.

Next came a pair of songs from Judith Weir's song cycle The full cycle lasts some 45 minutes and debuted in 2000 when Jessye Norman premiered it at the Carnegie Hall. It was very much Norman's creation, she conceived it and commissioned three women writers, Maya Angelou, Clarissa Pinkola Estés and Toni Morrison, and then approached composer Judith Weir. (Weir has written a short but illuminating programme note about the work's genesis, on the Wise Music website). The original is for soprano and large ensemble (19 players). Here we heard Breasts!! Song of the Innocent Wild-Child (Clarissa Pinkola Estés) and Edge (Toni Morrison) in new versions for soprano and piano.

The first, Breasts!! is about a young woman longing for her breasts to come, not so much from sexual desire as a symbol of female identity. Estés words are strong, and Weir allows plenty of space for them; initially in a sort of recitative and then in a somewhat Sondheim-esque number with a strong subject matter. The up-tempo alternated with the more thoughtful, but always Crawford brought the words to the fore. Edge (the next song in the cycle) began in totally different style, with a striking, complex piano introduction. Toni Morrison's text deals with young love, and throughout there was a sense of the poet remembering, rather than describing, and Weir's music avoids the erotic. By turns striking, dreamy and thoughtful, there was often an edge to the music as if these memories were not all good. This was a serious, intent piece.

For those intrigued by the original, Norman's 2000 performance of at the BBC Proms is on YouTube. Having heard two songs in Weir's version for soprano and piano, I would love to hear the whole cycle performed with these forces.

Next came another commissioned cycle, this time one conceived by Crawford and Bode. When planning the programme they wanted to include material about women in the workplace, and did not find anything. (I suspect that workplace songs are pretty rare anyway, and unsurprisingly they reflect a male point of view). So they commissioned poet Nicki Jackowska and composer Charlotte Bray to write three songs, the first dealing with mentorship, the second discrimination and the third ambition. The result was Crossing Faultlines and this was the work's premiere. Interestingly, there is a significant cross-generational element too, as Jackowska and Bray were born some 40 years apart, showing that these issues are eternal.

If the subject matter might have seemed too specific, then Jackowska has produced some beautifully metaphorical and allegorical texts; perhaps almost too much so, I had to really concentrate to extract the meaning from the first song and wondered whether words and subject matter should be so opaque. Perhaps further listening (and I look forward to the recording next year) will clarify.

The first song, 'In the margins' was written as a sort of lyric arioso, the piano writing complex but leaving plenty of space for the vocal line. There was a disjoint between the striking piano textures and the vocal line, with its awkward shapes and Bray's fondness for pushing the voice to extremes. This created an edge, which seemed to bring a sense of unease to the song, as if the mentorship was not a completely comfortable thing. 'Like a drum' began with a sinister beat in the piano, which continued through the song, and here Jackowska's words were admirably direct, making clear the full horror of the sexual harassment in the work place. As the story progressed, the jagged writing for the voice became completely understandable. The final song, 'And now her song' was about ambition, breaking the glass ceiling, using the 'frozen north' as allegory and beginning with icy piano writing accompanying striking recit. The song was very much declamatory, bringing out the words. Again the vocal writing often felt jagged and throughout the cycle, it seemed as if Bray had a fondness for pushing Crawford to her vocal limits. The result was a striking cycle which I look forward to encountering again, and particularly in live performance. 

Next came a pair of songs by two male American composers, both songs dealing with remembrance of female relatives. Carson Cooman's Ballad, from his cycle Gold into Diamonds, celebrated his grandmother whose fondness for dance had been curtailed when her husband became a religious preacher. Pianist Lana Bode explained that the song's description of the impact of religion resonated with her as she too grew up in a Christian community. Cooman uses a lively hoe-down/barn-dance style for the song, but strikingly shapes the phrases to the complexity of the words whilst never losing the dance element. The middle was sparer as the words became more disturbing, with the barn-dance returning at the end. Ricky Ian Gordon's My mother is a singer, from his cycle Sycamore Trees, is a tribute to his mother who gave up a career as a singer to bring him up. The result was a lyrical ballad with a rocking piano accompaniment that came close to being a torch song.

If Bray's cycle set some sort of marker, examining subjects rarely dealt with in the concert hall, Helen Grime's cycle Bright Travellers did something similar with motherhood in her 2018 song cycle written for Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton [see my 2018 review of the premiere]. Here we heard two songs, Milk Fever and Council Offices, neither about subjects encountered in the concert hall; the first about the complexities of breast feeding and how it feels to express milk, and in the second a visit to the Council Offices to register the birth brings forth thoughts of still-birth.

Milk Fever began with some striking piano textures, and when I first heard the songs Grime's writing evoked Michael Tippett for me. They were complemented by an elaborately worked vocal line, both voice and piano highly detailed, yet Crawford brought over the words too; we were never in doubt as to what she was getting excited about. Council Offices is simply bleak, and Grime does not try to disguise Fiona Benson's words, often setting the voice almost alone. Crawford brought out this bleakness, giving the words their due and highlighting the poetry of their setting. When I first heard the song cycle complete, I felt the performers prized beauty of tone and line over word and subject, but in these two the balance had changed and Crawford brought out the prickliness and edginess of Benson's writing. I would love to hear Crawford and Bode perform all five songs.

We finished with a pair of American women, first Florence Price setting Georgia Douglas Johnson in The Heart of a Woman and then singer/song-writer Michele Brourman's My Daughters, with words by Hillary Rollins. Price's lovely song used blues-type tropes but encompassed in an American art song to create something touching and intense. By contrast, Brourman's ballad was folk-ish in style with Bode's gently rocking accompaniment complementing Crawford's touching delivery of the song.

Listening on-line isn't quite the same as being in the room, but this was a lovely opportunity to catch a programme I would otherwise have missed. Crawford and Bode's project is an intriguing one, and I hope that it spurs other performers into action. In many ways, it felt frustrating that we only had an hour and I would have loved to have heard more of the cycles by Judith Weir and Helen Grime.

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