Sunday, 17 August 2014

Songs by Jake Heggie that follow in the great tradition of American song though with a more modern twist on a new release from Naxos

American composer Jack Heggie (b.1961) is well known for his successful operas such as Moby-Dick, Dead Man Walking, Three Decembers, To Hell and Back, and Out of Darkness that have been produced extensively on five continents. However, he has also composed choral, orchestral and chamber works as well as more than 250 songs.

Heggie is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and has been a guest artist at Boston University, Bucknell, Cornell, SUNY Fredonia, UNT College of Music, USC Thornton School of Music, University of Colorado, University of Oregon, and Vanderbilt University. He has also been a resident artist at summer festivals such as SongFest at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, Washington State, the Steans Institute at Ravinia, Illinois and VISI (Vancouver International Song Institute).

It is Heggie’s songs that feature on a new release from Naxos entitled Connections: Three Song Cycles with soprano, Regina Zona and pianist, Kathleen Tagg


The first set of songs on this disc are the five that make up Natural Selection (1997), a setting of poems by the San Francisco Bay writer, Gini Savage, that trace a young woman’s search for identity.

Creation opens with an insistent piano motif. When soprano, Regina Zona enters she has a fine, extremely musical voice though with a somewhat wide vibrato in this very evocative song.

After a piano flourish that opens Animal Passion, the soprano enters in this lively setting with a tango rhythm. There is some particularly attractive piano writing. Regina Zona is really terrific in this song, one that really suits her voice. She gives much passion in the last line.

Zona does a tremendous job with Alas! Alack! another faster song that again suits her voice so well. This is an amusing text which the soprano picks up so well. With Indian Summer – Blue Zona catches the bluesy opening brilliantly and revels in the transitions between  jazz rhythms and the slower, bluesy style as does pianist Kathleen Tagg.

Joy Alone (Connection) returns us to a tender, flowing song though not one that allows the soloist any respite with many changes in tempo and some difficult intervals. There are some glorious passages in the latter part of this song.

With Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999) Heggie attempts to give a voice to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, setting three texts by American poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) and one of his own.

Piano flourishes open Ophelia’s Song before Regina Zona enters in this setting of Heggie’s own text, very effective with a distinct American feel. Moving to the St. Vincent Millay settings Women Have Loved Before Zona displays her flexibility as the music surges around, full of vocal power and control. There is so much variety of feeling in these songs, particularly this one.

Not in a Silver Casket has a lovely, gently undulating melody to which Zona brings a heartfelt feeling with fine accompaniment from Tagg. This is a particularly fine song.

There is a beautifully limpid piano introduction to Spring where, again, Heggie uses unusual rhythmic changes and varying tempi to create a curiously attractive setting. Zona brings all of her passion and feeling to this song before the hushed end.

Eve-Song (1996), a setting of texts by Philip Little (b.1950), offers a modern perspective on the biblical Eve. My Name opens gently as the soprano, Regina Zona vocalises with the piano before the words ‘Eve, Eve…’ subtly appear. There is fine, sensitive playing from Kathleen Tagg as well as beautifully shaped singing from Zona, whose lower textures are particularly fine. The song rises in drama with Heggie’s constant changes of rhythm, before the dissonant, quiet conclusion.

An undulating piano theme opens Even in this gentle setting. Regina Zona is lovely in her restrained beautiful, sensitive singing. Good is more upbeat with a syncopated piano rhythm well handled by Zona with fine control and understanding of the text.  

Heggie’s way with rhythm works extremely well again in Listen, a setting that creates a kind of sensuousness around the words ‘My entire body ripples up and down…’  Snake introduces more jazz rhythms where Zola is in her element, handling the rhythms with real style and panache in this well conceived setting of the words ‘…Sweet, sour, salty, bitter. And the taste of air, Of rottenness.’

Woe to Man receives an outpouring of feeling in the opening before the mood suddenly lightens with the style of an old fashioned music hall song. But the ‘woe’ doesn’t entirely disappear despite the rather lighter end. The Wound is a lullaby concerning birth, beautifully sung with finely sensitive accompaniment. To end this cycle we have perhaps the finest song, The Farm, a gentle song as Eve, in her old age, tries to remember Eden. This is a poignant conclusion to this cycle and this disc.

All lovers of song should acquire this disc, particularly those attracted to American song. These settings follow in the great tradition of American song such as Copland and Barber though with a more modern twist.

The recording is very good and there are first rate, informative booklet notes by Kathleen Tagg, Regina Zona and Jack Heggie. There are full English texts.

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