Many ensembles present themed concert programs. But nobody does it quite like Mirror Visions Ensemble.
“Midnight Magic,” their first new live show since the start of the pandemic, was a sterling, maybe even definitive example of their specialty. The group creates what might be best described as art-song cabarets in a concert hall. In this instance, four accomplished operatic singers and one excellent pianist ranged through the history of vocal music, from Mozart and Schumann to Sondheim and Ruth Crawford Seeger. They also included new pieces commissioned by the group. Every selection bore some connection to midnight and magic – the music of the night.
That Old Midnight Magic
Technically and interpretively stellar, the singers glided from tradition to tradition, genre to genre, style to style and century to century. The whole evening (actually a very early “midnight” of 5pm) shone with high spirits and sparkling entertainment.
Mezzo-soprano Abi Levis and tenor Daniel McGrew set the tone with a newly commissioned arrangement by Andrew Gerle of “That Old Black Magic.” Spectral and dramatic, with growling 12-tone runs from pianist Max Hammond, it built something new and mysterious out of the old chestnut.
Hammond got a solo turn later on, with the lovely “Little Midnight Nocturne” by Fred Hersch. But it was his virtuosic accompaniment that really impressed. He displayed great skill and élan throughout. It’s easy to miss how much skill it takes to back, for example, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “My Name Is John Wellington Wells,” which baritone Mischa Bouvier sang with joyous comic mugging. Or to express with seeming ease the effervescent pianistic depiction of rain and lush foliage in Respighi’s “Pioggia,” sung delightfully by McGrew.
McGrew revealed a golden upper register in “Saturn Returns” by Adam Guettel and in Margaret Bonds‘ “Winter Moon.” The tenor’s captivating interpretation of a Benjamin Britten song was another highlight. Levis stunned with a ravishing Sondheim selection, and with Ricky Ian Gordon’s setting of Langston Hughes’ “Harlem Night Song.” The latter was another showcase for Hammond’s sensitivity and skill at the piano.
The always wonderful soprano Mireille Asselin polished Mendelssohn’s “Neue Liebe” to a gleam. She conjured surrealistic birdsong in Harold Meltzer’s wordless “Midnight Vocalise,” one of the works commissioned by the group (presumably for this occasion). And she and Bouvier showed off their limberness and comic timing in a delightful “Papageno/Papagena.” After all, what’s a midnight-themed concert without a little night music from Mozart?
Art for Art’s Sake
It feels worth mentioning that Mirror Visions Ensemble is not succumbing into the illogic that’s leading some organizations to scrub performances of works by the great Russian composers. The program included a song by Rachmaninoff – whom, by the way, we New Yorkers like to claim as one of our own because of his long residence here – sung beautifully by Bouvier.
A Langston Hughes set included music by Florence Price and a new commission from Carlos Simon, along with the Bonds and Gordon settings. The singers harmonized gloriously here. They did so again in the rousing bluesy closer, a new Griffin Strout arrangement of the traditional “Midnight Special.”
This early-evening “midnight” was a special one for sure. There’s nothing like hearing wonderful music sung gloriously by artists who are clearly so happy to be there. The last time I saw Mirror Visions Ensemble was one of my final concert experiences before the pandemic. A somewhat different lineup was singing settings of letters written by the famous and the obscure. “Midnight Magic” is a letter of love to everyone who experiences it. The group is celebrating its 30th season. May its fourth decade be a fruitful one.