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The Big Parlor at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Feb 10th, 2018

From left: Damien Sneed, Sterling Eliot, Brandie Sutton, Justin Michael Austin

Chamber music, opera, soul, and jazz held the stage at Bard’s LUMA Theater presented by the Catskill Jazz Factory offering a program entitled “Music and Words: Classical, Jazz & Soul: A musical Offering Led by Damien Sneed.” An eclectic mix of genre and style was on display as Damien Sneed tinkled the piano in a variety of styles as he played with style.

Moving from Mendelssohn (Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor), Strauss, and Rachmaninoff as opening lead, soprano Brandie Sutton and baritone Justin Michael Austin intoned the most wonderful version of Harry T. Burleigh’s “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” that I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. On piano, Sneed offered some new arranging. “Till I Wake” by Burleigh, sung by Sutton arrived with elegance and sophistication. Austin sang “Burleigh’s “The Young Warrior” (lyrics by James Weldon Johnson) with deep feeling. Cecil Cohn’s arrangement of Countee Cullen’s “Epitaph for a Poet,” a favorite of mine, was sung by Sutton with passion and grace.

The opening trio with Edward W. Hardy on violin and Sterling Eliot on cello, furnished a chamber music interlude with Aaron Copland’s Passacaglia that was serene, dreamy, and soulful. Copland’s arrangement of the traditional folksong “All the Pretty Horses” with Sutton singing in Appalachian accent concluded the first half.

The second half was devoted to songs by Margaret Bonds, a good friend of Langston Hughes and prominent influence on the poems of John Berryman, and the Gershwin brothers. Sutton sang “Lord, I just can’t keep from crying.” Austin countered with “You can tell the world.” Sutton sang “He’s got the whole world in his hands” digging into the emotional roots of the lyrics. Austin performed “Troubled Water” with his deep baritone voice that delivered a shiver of pleasure. Sutton sang “Minstrel man from Dream Portraits,” closing out the set by Bonds. Damien Sneed played his new arrangement of Langston Hughes’ poem “I dream a world.”  

With Ira’s lyrics and George’s tunes, Austin and Sutton performed five songs from the Gershwin brothers' opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Sutton sang the classic “Summertime” with poignant nostalgia while Austin ably mimed “I got plenty of nothing” with zest and finesse.  Sutton and Hardy replied with “It ain’t necessarily so” with velvety panache. They closed with Austin singing “Bess, you is my woman” and Sutton replied with “I love you Porgy” with convincing appeal.

This was a pleasant evening of American lieder sung by rising, young performers who have a considerable future before them. Chamber music interludes offered extra spice that contributed intimacy and elegance. This was the first leg of a trio of programs presented by Sneed. “The Golden Age of Song” will be presented on March 17; “Sanctified Soul: 1960s to Today” will be performed with The Levites on April 21. Sneed is dynamic pianist, conductor, and arranger whose star is rising .If you love music and words, be sure to step into his parlor.