Perhaps the most compelling item on the Art + Sol menu is A Standing Witness. This major new work from 2021 by composer Richard Danielpour and librettist Rita Dove will be performed by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the six-member Music from Copland House Ensemble. (Copland House is the Cortlandt Manor, New York, home where composer Aaron Copland lived and worked for the last 30 years of his life, from 1960 to 1990. It’s now home to a nonprofit that supports contemporary composers with residencies, post-residency performances, and commissions.)
The 75-minute piece surveys five decades of major events in American history, starting with the cataclysmic year of 1968 and continuing through the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Opera News described A Standing Witness as “songs America needs to hear” and Vermont Public Radio said it “has the potential to become one of the most influential compositions of this century.”
Danielpour, one of the country’s most distinguished composers, and Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate, crafted their collaboration specifically for Graham, and it’s sung from the perspective of a famous American woman whom the statuesque mezzo seems to embody to perfection. Local audiences are most familiar with her raucous comic performances, such as the title role in Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand-Duchess of Gerolstein at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012, but Graham is equally adept in serious drama and contemplative songs.
Like Danielpour, Pierre Jalbert has been a Copland House composer in residence, and his Crossings, a Copland House commission, opens the program. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, this 2011 work “was inspired by the idea of wandering peoples, crossing into new territories and strange lands.”
The New Hampshire-born Jalbert is of French, Canadian, and American ancestry. Crossings traces his heritage through the use of “Quand j’ai Parti du Canada” (“When I Left Canada”), a somber Quebec folk song that is deconstructed, reinterpreted, and reassembled during the 15-minute piece.
It’s followed by selections from John Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing, from 2004. His childhood musical memories fueled their creation: “It is a distant, quaint vision: the family around the piano singing familiar songs, a Currier and Ives print, an album of sepia photographs. But I remember it well (or did I imagine it?).”
Harbison scored 12 songs, including “Careless Love,” “Aura Lee,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, in arrangements that have something of the free-wheeling spirit with which iconoclastic composer Charles Ives approached nostalgic Americana, even though they don’t sound Ivesian.
A pre-concert discussion with Danielpour, Dove, and pianist Michael Boriskin (Copland House’s artistic and executive director) takes place onstage at the Lensic at 6:30 p.m. and is free to ticket holders.