At the beginning of this month, PENTATONE released an album by soprano Lisa Delan entitled Out of the Shadows: Rediscovered American Art Song. That may be a rather long-winded title; but it is definitely not an inaccurate one. Most likely, at least some of the composers’ names will be familiar to those who take their listening seriously; but the songs are quite another matter. Indeed, when the song is recognizable, most likely the arrangement will be unfamiliar. The blurb for this recording on the Amazon.com Web page explains that Delan encountered these songs when she was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), some of her teachers were contemporaries of the composers included on this recording. Since I am probably a contemporary of many of those teachers, I appreciate their mindset. However, I have to confess that, like almost all of my contemporaries, I knew of Randall Thompson only through his a cappella “Alleluia” (which was not only sung by every high school choir but also performed every summer at Tanglewood, where it was usually sung by everyone).
On the other hand, if the songs themselves are unfamiliar, almost all of the text authors are a part of my personal reading experience. They include Conrad Aiken, Ford Maddox Ford, Tennessee Williams, and even E. E. Cummings (who preferred to spell his name with only lowercase letters). Furthermore, there are composers that I make it a point to seek, such as Paul Bowles, since I know them through compositions other than art songs. Thus, while this entire album amounts to an extended journey of discovery, I can confess that, from the very beginning, I was eager to make that journey.
I should also confess that I have been going to concerts at SFCM ever since the school moved from the remote Sunset district of San Francisco into the heart of the Civic Center in 2006. (By way of disclaimer, I should note that, when my wife and I downsized from a house in Palo Alto to a condominium in the Civic Center, I donated my Baldwin grand piano to SFCM!) Over the course of many SFCM concerts, I came to know both Delan and her piano accompanist Kevin Korth. Ironically, however, my concert experiences of her work seem to have taken place in Davies Symphony Hall, where she was singing music by Gordon Getty with the San Francisco Symphony. On this album Getty appears only as an arranger, although his setting of “Shenandoah” for soprano, cello (Matt Haimovitz), and piano is engagingly non-traditional. Indeed, the album has two other arrangements for the same resources, both of which are equally innovative, David Garner’s treatment of “Auld Lang Syne” and Jack Perla’s take on “Home, Sweet Home.”
The biggest surprise on the album is the appearance of John Kander, better known as the “composer half” of the team of Kander and Ebb. Their Broadway hits include Cabaret and Chicago. The title of his song is “A Letter from Sullivan Ballou.” The letter was written on July 14, 1861; and the author was a major about to encounter his first Civil War battle fighting on the Union side. Within a week he would be one of the fatalities in the Battle of Bull Run. The song itself is framed by a spoken prelude and postlude, setting a poignancy that intensifies the impact of the sung portion.
Nevertheless, because everything on this album is so new, it is a bit unfair to account for it only on the basis of early impressions. What is important is that Delan brings both clarity and rhetorical relevance to her approach to each of the 31 songs on this album. Thus, while the album as a whole will be a journey into unfamiliar territory, Delan’s command of these songs definitely makes the journey worth taking.