Delightful American songs from Megan Corby and Craig Beardsworth at the Hutt

American songs by Copland, Barber, Ives, and William Schuman, Richard Hundley, Paul Bowles, Richard Hageman and Jason Robert Brown

Craig Beardsworth (baritone) and Megan Corby (soprano); Hugh McMillan (piano)

St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 14 September, 12.15pm

It’s a few years since I heard either of these singers in a solo recital of any kind. This lunchtime concert was such an enterprising and attractive event that I felt real regret that the audience was so small, though not very different from the audiences that usually come. The real sadness is the failure of the Lower Hutt City Council to save the Laing’s Road Methodist Church where these concerts used to be held, usually attracting more people.

Introducing the concert, Craig Beardsworth sort-of apologized to those who might have expected a recital of American music to present names like Porter, Rodgers, Kern and Gershwin. But unapologetically, he made it clear that some sort of distinction was to be seen between American ‘songs’ and commercial Broadway music, just as there is between Schubert and Schumann, and the world of the West End musical and the Beatles.

By no means undervaluing the lighter varieties of music, I thought the two proved their case very well.

They took turns, generally singing songs that matched the sexes. They were well prepared, their presentations polished and accompanied by gestures that did much to bring the mini-dramas to life, as well as to entertain. Speaking of accompaniment, Hugh McMillan handled the wide variety of styles, from the country rhythms of Paul Bowles’s Lonesome Man to the complexities of Charles Ives, with skill and a distinguished facility with the style and character of each.

American accents were employed judiciously, hardly audible in many songs, but full-blown elsewhere, as in Beardsworth’s arresting performances of ‘The Dodger’, ‘Lonesome Man’ and ‘The Greatest Man’.

Megan Corby opened with an aria, ‘Laurie’s song’, from Copland’s opera The Tender Land, easing us into American song through a work with clear European sources, yet flavoured with Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Richard Hundley was a name new to me; his two songs, ‘Sweet Suffolk Owl’ and ‘Come ready and see me’ revealed a composer, thanks to Corby, with an ear for notes that were just right for the words. Her Barber songs – ‘The Monk and his cat’ and ‘The Crucifixion’ – presented a composer less committed to a popular style, more in tune with the art song of France or England, yet with American contours. She sang them with real polish.

I realised from what was said about Paul Bowles that my education had been neglected (most of his life he acted as a sort of one-man American cultural out-post in Tangier by the sound of it), and the four songs, evenly shared by the two singers, richly tuneful, not the least hackneyed or sentimental, were among the most enjoyable of the concert. In ‘Sugar in the cane’ Megan, southern twang and all, showed her impatience with the constraints of her condition; while in ‘Do not go, my love’ by Richard Hageman, her anguish at her looming loss was real. Her final song, the 1996 setting by Jason Robert Brown of ‘The Flagmaker’, touching a War of Independence tragedy, was both poignant and dramatic.

Craig’s share of the partnership began strikingly with two of Copland’s familiar folk song arrangements: ‘The Dodger’ and ‘At the River’ – the first satirical and mocking, a bit outrageous, the second rotundly pious, also mocking. Perhaps his biggest challenge was with the three Ives songs, with which he used his interesting voice to great effect. The studied way he put down the score, to start in a quasi-lecturing way, to narrate his tale of ‘The Greatest Man’  was the mark of a highly accomplished performer; there and in ‘The Circus Band’, the voice and the droll, evocative gestures seem to call for him to have much more exposure.

It was a admirable recital that deserves to be enjoyed in other parts of the metropolis.

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