Flesh and Stone: Songs of Jake Heggie

By Berg, Gregory | Journal of Singing, November/December 2008 | Go to article overview

Flesh and Stone: Songs of Jake Heggie


Berg, Gregory, Journal of Singing


Flesh And Stone: Songs of Jake Heggie. Frederica von Stade, Joyce Castle, Zheng Cao, Mary Phillips, mezzo soprano; Jake Heggie, piano; Carey Bell, clarinet; Eugenia Zuckerman, flute; Dawn Harms, violin; Emil Miland, cello; Richard Worn, double bass; David Henderson, alto saxophone. (Classical Action; 62:37)

Winter Roses: "To My Dad," "Sleeping," "Sweet Light." Statuesque: "Henry Moore: Reclining Figure in Elmwood," "Pablo Picasso: Head of a Woman," "Hatshepsut: The Divine Potter," "Alberto Giacometti: Standing Woman," "We're Through: Winged Victory." The Deepest Desire: Four Meditations on Love: "Prelude-The Call," "More is Required," "Love," "I Catch on Fire," "The Deepest Desire," "Primary Colors." The Starry Night-Four Songs: "The Starry Night," "Celestial Locomotion," "Reflection," "I Would Not Paint a Picture."

This collection of four song cycles by Jake Heggie is presented to the public by an organization called Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. Every musician involved in this project donated his and her time and talent to the cause, and there is an unmistakable air of affection and enthusiasm throughout these performances. These song cycles may bear little apparent similarity to each other, but Heggie tells us in the liner notes that they share a focus on "the fragile and fleeting nature of our lives; we are flesh and bone one day, ash and stone the next."

The most recent of these four song cycles is also the most fun and most consistently entertaining. Statuesque was composed in 2005 for mezzo soprano Joyce Castle, a vibrant operatic artist who continues to deliver searing dramatic performances of roles like Klytemnestra and Herodias, as well as comic roles such as Prince Orlofsky. The University of Kansas-Lawrence, where she now teaches, commissioned a new composition for her from Heggie, who in turn contacted writer Gene Scheer for what became the first of a number of happy and successful collaborations. Heggie had the idea of creating the song cycle around an array of interesting statues, because of Castle's statuesque bearing, and Scheer ended up selecting the five statues that, in effect, are brought to life in these songs.

Joyce Castle has been singing for a long time and it shows, but her somewhat aged yet still attractive instrument is ideal for this project, and her communicative potency is even more essential for the successful delivery of these varied and demanding songs. Case in point is "Pablo Picasso: Head of a Woman" in which the mezzo soprano impersonates both the fabled artist in baritonal grandeur and his somewhat ditzy model in a soprano-ish squeak, with Heggie's music lending such fun to the proceedings. "Hatshepsut: The Divine Potter" calls for more opulent singing against a backdrop of exotically shaded chords. "Alberto Giacometti: Standing Woman" opens with breathtaking poignancy that gives way to seething pain and anguish, with slashing syncopation that calls to mind Gershwin or Rodgers at their most dissonant, as the subject of this statue grapples with what it is to be permanently memorialized in stone with her original beauty jettisoned in favor of her sculptor's artistic vision. "We're Through: Winged Victory" is a similar theatric and vocal tour de force, but to comic rather than tragic effect, as this particular statuary subject allows her slow burning resentment to explode into a towering rage of exasperation that the museum visitors who parade past her fail to ask her the questions are scored for seven instruments, and Heggie uses their contrasting colors to delicious effect.

The other three song cycles may be more straightforward affairs, but are superb creations all the same. Winter Roses was composed in 2004 for Frederica von Stade, but for some unexplained reason this disk includes only three of its seven songs. Thankfully, those three include Heggie's heartfelt setting of von Stade's poem titled "To My Dad," in which she tries to come to terms with the feelings of distance she has for her father who died before she was even born. …

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