courtesy of Naxos of America
Kenneth Fuchs has become one of American’s leading composers. Ironically, he has achieved that status, in no small part, through a fifteen-year old recording history with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. This has resulted, to date, in five single-CD albums released under the American Classics rubric by Naxos. The most recent of these was released on August 10 of last year, and it is of particular interest because it involves a vocalist who has made a significant name for himself here in the Bay Area.
That vocalist is countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, who is soloist in the performance of Poems of Life, a cycle of settings of twelve poems by Judith G. Wolf, completed in 2017 and scored for countertenor and orchestra. Fuchs came to know Wolf through an introduction provided by Falletta, and the poems he set had been published in Wolf’s book Otherwise. In the notes he provided for the accompanying booklet, Fuchs describes the book as follows:
The poems weave a narrative of love, the pain of loss through death, emotional transformation through grief, and spiritual enlightenment.
The resulting composition departs from the traditional conventions of a song cycle. The work consists of three movements, only one of which (the last) sets only a single poem. The first movement sets four, and the second sets three. Those movements are framed by a Prologue and an Epilogue, each of which sets two poems. That grouping and ordering then allows the cycle itself to unfold an underlying narrative.
The countertenor assumes the role of the protagonist of the narrative by giving voice to Wolf’s texts. However, the score introduces two other solo voices. The first of these is a cello that serves as “the instrumental doppelgänger of the protagonist’s spirit and emotions” (Fuchs’ words). As the text unfolds, it becomes clear that the narrative of Poems of Life is about death and the impact of that death on the narrator. That impact is realized musically by having a solo cor anglais embody “the spirit of the lost beloved.”
Following the text sheet, it becomes clear that Fuchs’ has allowed the overall semantic structure to flow seamlessly from one poem to the text. That flow is embodied through the orchestral context, which transcends our natural inclination to read each poem as a self-contained entity. The result is a highly compelling account of the words of a poet that is not particularly well known, at least here in the United States; and that account is facilitated by the clarity of Cohen’s diction.
Here in San Francisco Cohen has already built of a solid base of familiarity. Last year American Bach Soloists named him recipient of the 2019 Jeffrey Thomas Award, which led to his joining soprano Mary Wilson in a New Year’s Eve program at which they sang arias and duets by George Frideric Handel. His Handel skills were then exercised by the score Daria Novo prepared for Yuri Possokhov’s ballet about Narcissus, “…two united in a single soul…,” given its premiere performance by the San Francisco Ballet at the end of March. Cohen then left the ballet stage to sing the role of David in Handel’s HWV 59 oratorio Saul, the program that concluded the 38th season of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale. At the beginning of next month, he will make his San Francisco Opera debut singing the role of Medoro in Handel’s HWV 31 Orlando.
As to Fuchs, it is worth observing that, while his latest album features his “Spiritualist” piano concerto (with soloist Jeffrey Biegel), Poems of Life is followed by two concertos for instruments encountered less frequently, electric guitar (D. J. Sparr) and alto saxophone (Timothy McAllister). Falletta seems to have been instrumental (pun unabashedly intended) in allowing Fuchs to go down less conventional paths. He clearly enjoys working with less familiar sonorities; and Cohen has done a first-rate job in enabling him to pursue the unconventional in the vocal repertoire.