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This article was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Meeting of Words and Music
With the 20th century safely behind us now, we can
look back to see, perhaps more clearly than those who will come later,
the era’s enormous innovations in music and literature.
"Twentieth Century Portraits" is the title of pianist J.J.
Penna’s fifth annual Summer Song Festival at Westminster Choir College.
Five programs of song are designed to shine a light on some of the
most innovative artists in both music and text. The series opens Wednesday,
June 19, with "Misia: A Musical Portrait of Misia Sert," a
program of songs by early 20th century composers all of whom worked
within the orbit of the dynamic and influential Sert.
"I spend the whole year in dual capacity as teacher and professional
accompanist, so I’m constantly involved with song and music and the
ways that those converge," says Penna. "In the 20th century
there was so much experimentation and innovation, both in how poets
and writers looked at language, and how musicians approached composition.
"My mother was a singer and a linguist, so even as a young student
musician I grew up with this duality of appreciating text and literature
and music," says Penna, who grew up in Binghamton, New York. He
earned his bachelor’s degree in music at SUNY, Binghamton, and his
doctorate in 1996 from the University of Michigan. "I loved the
vocal repertoire. If I had a voice, I’d be a singer," says the
pianist who has played as accompanist to American diva Katherine Battle
on her recital tours.
"Now I’m living at the place where a singer’s sound and musicianship
and musical language meets a poetic text," he says. "And my
job is to make a unification of those two things."
Last summer, Penna read "Misia," the biography of Misia Sert
by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale (authors who are also duo pianists).
He became fascinated by the woman whose influence in Paris transcended
all boundaries and began to plan a program of works by artists of
Born in 1870, Sert began her career as a young piano prodigy —
she played for Franz Liszt at age 10 — and as an adult became
a muse to a remarkable number of turn-of-the-century artists. Composers
Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, artist Jean Cocteau, and poets Stephane
Mallarme, and Paul Verlaine were all among her intimates. She met
and played piano with Edvard Grieg after an Ibsen premiere, and helped
convince Diaghilev to accept Stravinsky’s revolutionary score that
became the ballet, "The Rite of Spring."
Penna’s concert program features music by Debussy, Ravel, and Satie,
performed by Margaret Cusack, soprano, Catherine Laub, soprano, Elizabeth
Shammash, mezzo-soprano, with Penna and Martin Neron providing piano
A successful song represents the meeting of two quite
different arts. Penna sees himself as one element in a trio comprising
composer, poet, and the singer and accompanist. The performing musicians’
role is to illuminate both text and music for the audience.
"A teacher once said to me that singers and accompanists are the
only people who know what the music about," says Penna. "No
composer writes a piece of vocal music without beginning with text,
so that’s essentially the basis for my work — to unify a composer’s
language and a poet’s language."
Reading the poetry of the late poet Jane Kenyon, Penna also became
interested in the power of the act of writing. "Briefly It Enters:
Songs of Writing, Loss, and Transcendence" brings together the
poetry and prose of "writers for whom writing was a kind of salvation
or healing process," he says.
The June 21 program features the poetry of Jane Kenyon set to music
by American composer William Bolcom in "Briefly It Enters."
Composer David Liptak’s "Seven Songs on Texts of James Wright,"
and Dominic Argento’s "From the Diaries of Virginia Woolf."
Performers include Darynn Zimmer, soprano, Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo-soprano,
and Thomas Meglioranza, baritone.
A program of "Strangelands: Folksongs From Many Lands" on
June 22 includes Josef Canteloube’s "Chants d’Auvergne;" Ravel’s
"Five Greek Folksongs," and folksongs from Brazil, Romania,
Britain, Germany, Spain, and Catalonia, performed by Penna’s wife,
soprano Aurora Mica, accompanied by Penna.
"Songs of Darius Milhaud," on June 23, features a portrait
of one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, with the
songs "Poemes juifs," "Chansons de troubadour," and
"Catalogue des fleurs," performed by Martha Hart, mezzo-soprano.
The festival concludes on a light note on June 26 with a concert of
"Movie Songs 1950 to 1970," featuring such gifted songsmiths
as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Henry Mancini, Andre Previn, and
Although this is the fifth annual series of "art song," Penna
still chafes against the term that he thinks relegates songs by classical
composers to museum status. While a composer such as Michel Legrand
or McCartney and Lennon may not reach the level of Ravel, they both
practiced the same art. "It’s just as difficult to write a classy
pop song as it is for a classical composer to set a text to music,"
Bristol Chapel, 609-219-2001. "Misia: A Musical Portrait of Misia
Sert" featuring music by Debussy, Ravel, and Satie performed by
Margaret Cusack, Catherine Laub, Elizabeth Shammash, and J.J. Penna,
piano. Free. Wednesday, June 19, 7:30 p.m.
features music of American composers William Bolcom, David Liptak,
and Dominic Argento performed by Darryn Zimmer, Elizabeth Shammash,
Thomas Meglioranza, and J.J. Penna. Friday, June 21, 7:30 p.m.
Canteloube’s "Chants d’Auvergne," Ravel’s "Five Greek
Folksongs," and folksongs from Brazil, Romania, Britain, Germany,
Spain, and Catalonia, soprano Aurora Mica, with J.J. Penna, piano.
Saturday, June 22, 7:30 p.m.
and J.J. Penna, piano. Sunday, June 23, 4 p.m.
Mancini, Newman, Previn, Grusin, and Michel Legrand, performed by
Orgena Rose, soprano; Alyson Harvey, mezzo-soprano; and J.J. Penna,
piano. Free. Wednesday, June 26, 7:30 p.m.
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