Barber’s songs take center stage at the Good Shepherd Center

In this, the Barber anniversary year, mezzo-soprano Janna Wachter paid homage to the creative partnership of Samuel Barber and his long time partner Gian Carlo Menotti with a recital of songs, piano works, and chamber operas by the two composers. Wachter’s Saturday evening tribute concert on June 19th was a first for the season. With the exception of The Esoterics, no other local ensemble has delved into Barber’s music for voice or vocal ensembles. And, to my knowledge no one has explored Barber’s formidable songs until this Wachter’s recital this past Saturday.

For her recital, Wachter enlisted the help of a number of local musicians. Roger Nelson provided confident accompaniment throughout the night. While the voices changed, Nelson’s contributions were consistently reliable. Nelson even took the spotlight himself on a couple of occasions playing Barber’s character shifting Nocturne and Menotti’s own Nocturne with searching aplomb.

The best and worst of the night were reserved for A Hand of Bridge and Knoxville Summer 1915. To close the evening, Wachter showed Unabridged, Curtis Taylor’s movie reproduction of A Hand of Bridge. Eric Banks and Glen Guhr sang roles in the chamber opera along with Wachter and Avinger. These four card players represent the composer’s inner circle. Each singer takes turns exploring the personal world of the card player they depict. Thoughts range from the vacuous to the perverse. Taylor’s visuals were a witty compliment to the four singers and the libretto. Taylor’s movie was the night’s high point. By contrast, Anneliese von Goerken’s rendition of Knoxville Summer 1915 was the night’s low-point. You would expect, in a small space like the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, clarity wouldn’t have been issue. For this performance it was. The lines of James Agee’s poem blurred. Goerken chose mawkish grandeur that might have worked on a concert stage, with a full orchestra, and an audience that gives the sung text at best casual attention. Scott Garlund arranged each piece’s instrumental music for saxophone ensemble. The arrangement was seductive in its simplicity but I still prefer Barber’s instrumentation better.

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