Oyster Boy Review 17  
  Fall 2003
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Not Far From Music

Cy Dillon

New Growth.
Shauna Holiman.
Albany Records.
1 disk pages, $16.99 (Audio CD).

In the past decade poetry has shown a laudable tendency to jump off the printed page into the voices of readers and singers, where it began and where it has the potential to live. If you harbor doubts that this is desirable, listen to New Growth. Shauna Holiman's collaboration with a group of three composers, four poets (one of whom is herself), five musicians, and one narrator, accentuates the power of poetry, and indeed, makes for vital new growth on the vine of the art song. No singer interprets contemporary poetry better than Holiman. This may come out of her writing. Having heard some of these works performed live, I can tell you she is a compact dynamo, filling the recital hall with energy, reflecting the emotion and tone of poetry with every note and gesture. Even in recording her understanding of the lyrics is communicated powerfully.

The disk particularly celebrates poetry because we hear the poems read by the poets (in the case of Teasdale, by an actress) as well as sung by Holiman. Holiman's flawless performances offer an unusually good opportunity to compare the two modes of presentation, and her collaborating musicians maintain the same high standards.

The recording begins with six songs based on the poems of Sara Teasdale, an early twentieth century poet. These intense and introspective lyrics create a somber, dream-like mood emphasized by the Holiman's rich voice. That said, highlights of the hour-long collection are Holiman's interpretation of Lee Hoiby's composition based on Jeffery Beam's Life of the Bee, Water Dreams (with lyrics by Holiman), and the striking soprano duets in Katha Pollitt's Metaphors for Women—For Two Sopranos & Piano.

Hoiby, one of America's most versatile and productive composers, is at his best in creating the musical setting for Life of the Bee. Gary Evans, author of Music Inspired by Art: A Guide to Recordings, commented to me that the "emotional range of the music is remarkable," at times "as stately as Ralph Vaughn Williams," at times "as rich as Chopin," and at times "reminiscent of great suspense film scores." Because Beam's lyrics present a dramatic characterization, the composer has an emotional setting to depict, and Hoiby makes the most of the opportunity. Holiman's ability to portray emotions while handling delicate irony, and the virtuosity of Brent McMunn on piano and cellist Barbara Stein Mallow, are put to the test by Hoiby's score, with its vivid texture and complex harmonies. Nevertheless, because the music is so clearly evocative of moods anyone can understand, the piece is attractive to audiences who might not always respond to contemporary song.

Water Dreams, with its haunting central image of a cistern full of faces, is a cycle of three poems written by Holiman and set to music by Melissa Shiflett, who is also the composer for the Sara Teasdale poems mentioned above. In Metaphors of Women, Elliot Z. Levine has written a series of astonishing soprano duets for the poems of Katha Pollitt, the noted essayist. The success of these duets—I had expected to find them an exercise in patient listening, but they hit me like a hurricane—makes it even clearer that accomplished contemporary composers have a wide variety of tools at their disposal for giving life to the written word.

Ezra Pound said, "Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music." New Growth demonstrates how these companion arts can successfully complement one another.