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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July

15, 1998. All rights reserved.

A Festival of `Art Songs’ at Westminster

I think every accompanist has more poetry books on

their shelves than music books," says J.J. Penna, the accompanist

to opera star Kathleen Battle who also teaches accompanying and

coaching

at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Penna, who is as

passionate about the art of the song as he is about his own

instrument,

the piano, unveils a week-long Art Song Festival at Westminster

Sunday,

July 19, to Sunday, July 26.

Highlights of the festival, which comprises lectures, classes, and

discussions, are three free public performances of songs composed

in Europe between 1895 and 1900 by Hugo Wolf, Chausson, Duparc,

Debussy,

Alban Berg, and concluding with Gustav Mahler’s rarely performed

"Das

Knaben Wunderhorn." Soloists for the programs, accompanied by

Penna, are Louise Fateaux, Aurora Micu, Laura Brooks Rice, and

baritone

Brian Nickel.

Penna says "art song" is a somewhat antiquated expression

used to delineate the difference between popular song and songs

written

by classical composers to modern poetry. "People of this century

who perform them think of them as poetry. We resent the term `art

song’ because it puts it in a museum, when to us it’s something that

we see as a living art," he says.

"The festival tries to see what happened to song writing in

Germany

and France after the explosion of Schubert and Schumann and the

romantic

song composers. I’ve taken the years 1885 to 1900 because they

represent

years when a lot was happening in literature, music, and in terms

of society. During this era a number of social and musical movements

occurred that signaled the end of the Romantic era and the beginning

of modernist thinking as we know it."

Modernist thinking, he adds, encompasses thinking about

psychoanalysis, the breaking down of cultural boundaries, and such

signature artistic movements of the 20th century as the fractured

images of cubism. "We can see the seeds of those movements

happening

here in the last years of the 19th century."

"A lot of this music breaks the boundaries of traditional thought

about what songwriting is. Wolf, Debussy, and Ravel set the

traditional

speech patterns of the language, subjugating melody and tune and

harmonic

convention."

Penna, whose mother was a professional singer, calls these

late-19th-century

works "some of the most important vocal music very written."

Conceding that such a pronouncement reflects his personal bias, he

notes that there are few periods of history when there was so much

crossover between music and literature as that found in the French

and German-Austrian cultures of this period.

"There was a tremendous richness of the songwriting that was

experimental,

dangerous, and personal," he says. "In these songs, poetry

and music are matched perfectly."

Art song composers selected both older texts and those by living

authors.

Both Ravel and Debussy had a close relationship with Stephane

Mallarme,

a leader of the French symbolist-surrealist movement. Mahler set

"Das

Knaben Wunderhorn" to an early-19th-century, folk-like collection

of traditional German ballads and serenades by Brentano and Arnim.

"But Mahler is looking at the poetry through the eyes of someone

modern who’s seeing the end of an era, who’s seeing the destruction

of tonality, of music as he had known it," says Penna.

Growing up in Binghamton, New York, Penna learned piano and learned

from his mother to love the vocal arts. "This profession chooses

you. I loved the vocal repertoire. If I had a voice, I’d be a

singer,"

he says. An avid performer of new music, he has collaborated with

mezzo-soprano Laura Brooks Rice in "Madwoman in the Attic,"

a recital featuring songs on texts by American women poets which they

have performed throughout the United States. Since the spring of 1997

Penna has accompanied Battle in her concert recitals.

"Miss Battle devotes a lot of her time to the performance of song.

Our programs are about 80 percent song and 20 percent operatic

literature.

We do songs of Wolf, Schubert, Faure, as well as some Spanish song

groups."

Penna received his bachelor’s degree in music from SUNY, Binghamton,

and his music doctorate in 1996 from the University of Michigan.

"Both

of my former teachers played for Miss Battle and my name came through

her management. An audition was set up; after that I played an initial

short tour with her." They have performed together in Mexico City,

Sacramento, Houston, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.

What makes a good accompanist? "A few things are absolutely

essential,"

Penna volunteers. "Flexibility — both musical and human. I

guess you could call it a spiritual, internal flexibility." Other

required skills include being a strong pianist who also has a working

knowledge and feel for the languages of the vocal repertoire,

including

French, German, Italian, and Spanish.

"I think you have to be a bit of a psychologist, too, in order

to be able to navigate through a lot of different repertoire and

relationships,"

says Penn. "And every accompanist has to be a lover of poetic

text."

— Nicole Plett

Art Song Festival, Westminster Choir College,

Bristol

Chapel, 609-921-2001. All performances are free.

A complete performance of Hugo Wolf’s classic song cycle,

"Italienisches

Liederbuch," a collection of miniatures from translator Paul

Heyse.

Sunday, July 19, 7:30 p.m.

Symbolism in France and the orchestral song in Germany are

featured

in songs by Chausson, Duparc, Debussy, and Alban Berg. Friday,

July 24, 7:30 p.m.

Final concert features Gustav Mahler’s "Das Knaben

Wunderhorn."

Sunday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.


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