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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
at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Penna, who is as
passionate about the art of the song as he is about his own
the piano, unveils a week-long Art Song Festival at Westminster
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,
Alban Berg, and concluding with Gustav Mahler’s rarely performed
Knaben Wunderhorn." Soloists for the programs, accompanied by
Penna, are Louise Fateaux, Aurora Micu, Laura Brooks Rice, and
Penna says "art song" is a somewhat antiquated expression
used to delineate the difference between popular song and songs
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
and France after the explosion of Schubert and Schumann and the
song composers. I’ve taken the years 1885 to 1900 because they
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
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
speech patterns of the language, subjugating melody and tune and
Penna, whose mother was a professional singer, calls these
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
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
Both Ravel and Debussy had a close relationship with Stephane
a leader of the French symbolist-surrealist movement. Mahler set
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
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
We do songs of Wolf, Schubert, Faure, as well as some Spanish song
Penna received his bachelor’s degree in music from SUNY, Binghamton,
and his music doctorate in 1996 from the University of Michigan.
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
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,
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
says Penn. "And every accompanist has to be a lover of poetic
— Nicole Plett
Chapel, 609-921-2001. All performances are free.
A complete performance of Hugo Wolf’s classic song cycle,
Liederbuch," a collection of miniatures from translator Paul
Sunday, July 19, 7:30 p.m.
in songs by Chausson, Duparc, Debussy, and Alban Berg. Friday,
July 24, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.
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