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Art Songs in Millbrook at Lyall

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Apr 15th, 2019

Robin Clifford, Rachael Weishoff, Christopher Cooley

On Sunday afternoon Lyall Federated Church provided a program of Art Songs with Soprano Robin Clifford and Mezzo-Soprano Rachael Weishoff, accompanied by Christopher Cooley on piano. All three performers had known each other for some years, Robin and Rachael having met as SUNY Purchase as undergraduates where they both worked with Christopher in various opera productions at SUNY. Robin just recently completed her MMA at the Mannes School of Music and Rachael will shortly receive her MMA from Yale University.

Rachel opened with “Una vo poco fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in which she displayed her ability to sing with passion and dynamics. Robin then sang the complete series "Ariettes oubliées," L. 60 by Claude Debussy. Debussy had set a few of Charles Baudelaire’s to piano and moved on to Paul Verlaine in 1888 when he was in Rome. The sophistication of the melodies and evocative mood settings made this series a classic in the vocal tradition. Debussy later went on to set more of Verlaine’s poems to piano and some of those works remain noted melancholic gems. Robin sang with excellent French diction and dramatic projection with unresolved dissonances while capturing the subtle gradations of Impressionist reverie, especially in the pathos of “L’Ombres des Arbres” and the love-separation of “Spleen” with its muted ending of “Alas!”

Rachael replied in Russian with another six pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Spanish Songs, Op. 100 from 1956. Soprano Zara Dolukhanova, with whom Shostakovich frequently worked in that decade, gave him six song lyrics (without author attribution, which has since been identified) to set for her, yet she never performed them because she thought they would not show off her voice to best effect, judging them more suitable for a male performer. Shostakovich re-scored them for mezzo-soprano; while these six songs were neglected for decades they are now treasured (posthumously) as one of his best vocal arrangements. What a charming group of songs!—especially “Little Stars” with its jaunty concluding waltz and the German music hall theme of “Round Dance.” Rachael was most moving in the concluding disorientation of “Dream,” which was the narration of a young man desperately in love. This was a rare treat as Russian songs are rarely heard in Millbrook.

Robin then performed the World Premiere of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” with a setting by Christopher. This collaboration was written for Robin’s grandmother, this being her favorite poem. I am delighted to report that the mellow dramatic interiority of the music will eventually allow this work to become a parlor room standard. It will, as they say, have legs….

Rachael sang “Empty Your Mind” composed by Christopher with a Stephen Mitchell translation excerpt from the Tao Te Ching. The spacious serenity of this piece should establish the work as standard Buddhist retreat theme song for Americans, if the word ever gets out. Rachael allowed a sense of emptiness and meditative sunlight to inhabit the mood of the song. “Crudele?....Non me dir” by Mozart from Don Giovanni was Robin’s operatic plea with its unlikely Romantic pathos which she depicted with skill.

Robin and Rachael united for three duets: “Belle nuit” from Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Offenbach; “Viens, Malika…Dôme épais” from Lamé by Delibes; Humperdinck’s “Abendsegen” from Hansel und Gretel, an opera in which they both have previously sung. They sang with natural unaminity, yet I favored the exquisite blending of their voices most in the Delibes. Throughout the performance Christopher played with delicate drama.

This was a well-thought-out program by very talented performers which should result in private parlor bookings if word circulates.