Wednesday, August 15, 2018

An Engaging Collection of David Conte’s Songs

This past June Arsis Audio released, Everyone Sang, a two-CD album surveying the songs of David Conte. The album title is also the title of one of six song collections that constitute almost the entirety of the release. The only single-song entry is “Lincoln,” which was commissioned by the city of Concord, Massachusetts to honor the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. The text was prepared by John Stirling Walker, drawing heavily on quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy of Lincoln.

This particular song is representative of much that is encountered throughout the album. Conte exercises keen judgement in selecting texts that he will then set to music, and that judgement is complemented by the perceptive ways in which the music both communicates the essence of the text and reflects upon that essence. Even when he is drawing upon familiar liturgical sources, which he does in his three Requiem Songs, one gets the impression that he is less interested in the liturgy itself than in his own semantic perspective on how those texts may be interpreted.

In all fairness, I should probably observe that I was at the first performances of three of the collections on this album. The earliest goes back to October 9, 2010, back when I was building up steam in my writing for, when the New Music Ensemble of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), performed the chamber ensemble version of Sexton Songs with soprano Marnie Breckenridge. The other two encounters took place after my move to this site, both again premiers at SFCM: Love Songs, presented on October 11, 2016 at the Alumni Artist Insights Series concert given by tenor Brian Thorsett (’04), joined by cellist and fellow alumnus Emil Miland (’75) and pianist Richard Masters, and Everyone Sang, presented this past April 2 at Conte’s Faculty Artist Series recital and sung by bass Matt Boehler accompanied by pianist Kevin Korth. (On the new album the pianist for Love Songs is John Churchwell.)

One of the things I quickly appreciated from these concert experiences was that Conte’s approach to text involved not only a keen sense of semantics but also one of phonemics. Whenever the text was in English, I realized that I did not have to bury my head in a text sheet. There are, of course, times when the eye wants to look at the text, often in order to acknowledge underlying relations of the present to both the past and the future; but Conte’s settings tend to be informed enough to consistently allow the immediate present to take care of itself, so to speak.

Then of course there are texts that are not in English. The other languages on this album are Latin and French. From my own selfish perspective, my orientation to these languages is strong enough that, even if I do not know exactly what the words are, I can still appreciate where Conte is taking them!

As might be guessed, there is considerable diversity over the course of the two CDs in this collection. Perhaps as a result of my concert experiences, I tend to prefer listening to the individual sets one at a time, since each establishes its own characteristic setting for expression. Fortunately, today’s technology enables this approach more effectively than had been afforded in the past. There is much to be gained from dwelling on each of Conte’s offerings independently of the others. This new release enables a considerable amount of dwelling, all to the advantage of the serious listener.

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