With a pair of song cycles, Mulligan offers an Argento tribute and New York premiere
By David Wright March 14, 2019
Dominick Argento, the superb American composer of vocal music who died last month at age 91, was remembered Wednesday night in the best way possible: with a stirring performance of one of his most significant works.
In recital at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, baritone Brian Mulligan and pianist Timothy Long boldly went where no man had gone before—or few, at any rate—with a passionate rendition of Argento’s 1974 cycle, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.
Crafting his setting of the intimate thoughts of a great English woman writer for a great English woman singer—mezzo-soprano Janet Baker—Argento said his goal was to create a Frauenliebe und -Leben for the 20th century. He aimed, like Schumann in that work, to trace a woman’s life through many stages, in this case from the opening question, “What sort of diary should I like mine to be?” to the final song, “Last Entry,” composed to a text written three weeks before the author’s death by suicide. The resulting work earned Argento that year’s Pulitzer Prize.
It took more than the usual suspension of disbelief to appreciate a performance of this about-and-for-women work by a burly, bearded six-footer with a powerful bottom register that would qualify him as a bass-baritone in the book of most listeners. But interpreting a song is about inhabiting a character, and after a few minutes Mulligan and his piano partner had one believing that this big hearty American guy was a frail and depressive, but keen-eyed, Englishwoman.
Less of a leap of faith was required for the work that preceded Argento’s on this program, Gregory Spears’s Walden—five eloquent settings of Thoreau’s prose composed for Mulligan and Long last year, premiered last September in Washington, D.C., and making its New York bow Wednesday.
Both cycles set extensive texts by master prose stylists, crafting a vocal line of considerable range but natural phrasing, in a piano environment that tended toward tintinnabulating textures. Both dealt in ear-friendly polytonal harmonies; Argento’s was subtly unified by a twelve-tone row woven through it, which a listener would probably not notice without having read up on the piece.
A big difference was in the texts, Thoreau’s being carefully crafted and polished for publication–though with an easy American gait–while Woolf’s private thoughts came tumbling out in an even more untrammeled stream of consciousness than one finds in her experimental novels.
In both cycles, musical contrasts of fast and slow, loud and soft between the songs were subtly drawn, and so the spotlight fell squarely on the singer and his English diction to convey the meaning of the texts.
Fortunately, Mulligan proved an eloquent orator and actor, pointing up the passion and the irony of Thoreau’s thoughts on nature and society, and evoking Woolf’s observations of herself, her home life, the pity and privations of war, a Roman street scene, and a very public British occasion, the funeral of the novelist Thomas Hardy. (It was in the wry comments on this last that one most missed an actual female voice in this recital.)
For his part, pianist Long shaped Spears’s minimalistic repeated figures to support the text, and easily took the ball and ran with it in expressive preludes and interludes. Even the seemingly-simple chordal sections in the Woolf songs contained many subtle variations and inflections crucial to the meaning of the text, and Long made those moments tell.
The second Woolf song, “Anxiety,” proved a tour de force for the duo, the pianist doubling the singer’s agitated line in precise unison, amidst constantly-changing meters, while executing a presto toccata himself.
Mulligan brought a wide variety of timbres and articulations to his part, especially in the emotionally-fraught Woolf songs. Besides a remarkably clear and projected lowest register, which he dipped into sparingly throughout the evening, his high notes ranged from a trumpet-like burst to the most ghostly pianissimo. Expressive turns in the text prompted various shades of whispers, growls, and mezza voce, as the moment required.
In sum, the evening offered much to reflect on: two great writers, an American living out his philosophy in the woods, and an Englishwoman vibrating like a string in sympathy with life in peace and war; and two American composers, one newly gone and remembered by his classic song cycle, and the other newly on the recital boards with a cycle of his own.
And also dessert: an encore selected from Mulligan’s latest CD of old baritone songs, Wolseley Charles’s gleefully macabre, tongue-twisting ballad “The Green-Eyed Dragon.” It could hardly have been less relevant, or more entertaining.
The next music presentation at Baruch Performing Arts Center will be the Aaron Diehl Trio in classical, jazz, and third-stream selections, 8 p.m. March 28. baruch.cuny.edu/bpac; 212-352-3101.