Themed concerts are nothing new, but few musicians draw more depth from – or have more fun with – grouping works based on non-musical commonalities than those of the Mirror Visions Ensemble. Last week at the Sheen Center in New York the ensemble presented four singers, wrangled and accompanied by pianist/impresario Grant Wenaus, in “The Disappearing Art of Letter Writing.”
The program consisted of musical settings of letters written by historical figures and unknowns, songwriters and poets, and even fiction writers of a sort. It swung from romance to riotous humor to wartime pathos, delivering everything in its mailbag with force and feeling.
Throughout the evening Soprano Mireille Asselin had wondrous fun with selections from “What Shall I Say?” A Guide to Letter Writing for Ladies, an advice tome from 1898 written by a Mrs. Humphry. (How to begin a polite letter to a duplicitous paramour: “I’ve learned that while I thought you were deep in your law books you’ve been with Nellie Brown.”) Composer Tom Cipullo set these sincere – and sometimes sincerely hilarious – passages to perfectly toned music that Asselin delivered with adroit inflection: boisterous humor when appropriate (knockabout melismas for an invitation to a musical evening Hyacinth Bucket would have been proud of) and a warm glowing tone when called for, as in a true (sample) love letter.
Asselin also excelled in a setting by John Kander (of Cabaret fame) of a Civil War letter written by a Union Army officer to his wife as he looked ahead to the likelihood he would be killed in battle. The deeply affecting Civil War sequence also included letters by Abraham Lincoln set to thoughtful music by contemporary composer Christopher Berg.
Joining Mirror Visions members Asselin, tenor Scott Murphree, and baritone Jesse Blumberg was guest tenor Daniel McGrew, who added a wonderful mix of controlled drama, superb sensitivity, and a tone like freshly polished silver in Mendelssohn’s setting of verses by Goethe and in Gwyneth Walker’s of an archly funny letter by John Muir. The latter contained numerous pointed moments and a glistening high note as Muir extols glaciers as “willing messengers to whom God spoke ‘well done’ from heaven, calling them back to their homes in the sky.”
Romance drove the evening’s first suite. Wenaus’ inspired curatorial skill shone as the four singers in turn delivered wonderful renditions of music by classical and modern-classical famous names. Murphree displayed a sweetly mellow tone in an aria by Erich Wolfgang Korngold with text by Elisabeth Honold, and performed a piece by Wilhelm Killmayer with a knowing smile in his voice. Blumberg revealed a strong, burnished quality as he sang a piece by Alexander Zemlinsky and offered a serious, contemplative take on Dominick Argento’s “Anna’s Birthday” with its thrilling climax. Asselin sang Mozart’s standalone song “Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte” with full operatic flair.
The two tenors called upon a different, equally powerful kind of artistic charisma to sing a mash-up of two made-up fan letters, “Dear Mr. Gershwin” from the musical Radio Gals and “You Made Me Love You,” a song Judy Garland made famous.
Wenaus’ accompaniments were as fluid as one could have asked for and just as lucid, whether portraying humorous banter, classical gravity, or anything in between. On the keyboard he immersed himself in the art and feeling of each piece with clarity and devotion that equalled the singers’.
Bravo all around. Visit the Mirror Visions Ensemble’s website for information on upcoming concerts.