Friday, August 30, 2019

Song Cycles of Valerie Saalbach Launch New Label

Composer Valerie Saalbach (from her Web site)

This Sunday will mark the debut of a new record label, True Capture Records. Those “in the business” that expect new releases to come out on Fridays may find this odd. However, there is something timely about a new label coming out on the first of a month, even if that particular day falls in the middle of Labor Day Weekend. The label is the brainchild of baritone Matthan Ring Black, and he created it to empower emerging talent to create new art.

For this first album Black approached soprano Elyse Anne Kakacek, who has recently been making her mark in opera, oratorio, and contemporary music. Black suggested that Kakacek prepare an album of modern art song for his label. Kakacek, in turn, decided that this album would be devoted to the music of composer Valerie Saalbach, who has, to date, composed three song cycles. This provided sufficient content to fill a CD album, and the result bears the title Untethered.

To the best of my knowledge, this album is currently available only through digital download. However, this is a case in which an pre-order will make one song from the album available immediately, after which the remaining tracks can be downloaded on Sunday. Unfortunately, the Web page for pre-orders gives no indication of available metadata; and I suspect there are many that will be reluctant to explore new repertoire in art song without the benefit of text sheets.

The good news is that there is a crystalline clarity to Kakacek’s voice. Attentive listeners are likely to recognize quickly that two of the Emily Dickinson poems on the album have been set by other composers (Aaron Copland and John Adams) and will probably have no trouble negotiating the delivery of the words. Furthermore, Saalbach clearly knows how to keep the piano from getting in the way of the vocalist; and the chemistry between Kakacek and pianist Christopher Fecteau could not be better.

The three song cycles themselves are another matter. They make up almost the entirety of the COMPOSITIONS Web page on Saalbach’s Web site. They are listed in alphabetical order on that Web page as follows:
  1. Caterina to Camoens sets nineteen short poems that Elizabeth Barrett wrote during her betrothal to Robert Browning. The names refer to Caterina de Ataide, a young girl of the sixteenth-century Lisbon court that inspired the fiery love poems by Luis de Camoens. Camoens’ passions were ill-fated. Caterina was only thirteen years old, and he was banished from court. (For the record, Barrett was in her late thirties when she began her correspondence with Browning.)
  2. Journey of Desire sets seven poems by Steve Kowit inspired by erotic Indian poetry written in the Bengali language most likely between the fourth and twelfth centuries.
  3. Poems of Emily Dickinson is just that; the aforementioned poems associated with other composers are “Going to Heaven!” (Copland) and “Wild Nights” (Adams).
For the most part, Saalbach’s approach to setting poetry is well-crafted. Nevertheless, her style seems to be more rooted in the first half of the twentieth century than in her own time. (Her biographical Web page does not give a birth date, but she began work on Caterina to Camoens in 1985.) As a result, those who know the art song repertoire will be quick to find a comforting familiarity in her songs; but that comfort is unlikely to sustain over the duration of the entire CD. I would therefore be bold enough to suggest that Black might do better to prepare more adventurous sermons to be delivered from his new pulpit.

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