The acclaimed vocal trio Mirror Visions Ensemble, comprised of Vira Slywotzky (soprano), Scott Murphree (tenor), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone), is famous for its many commissions of new works by today’s most exciting composers and in particular, for its ‘mirror visions’ commissions of multiple works set to the same text. MVE’s programs are well-known for being meticulously constructed, text-centered, and organized around a particular theme. Their concert entitled Journeys (featuring pianist Grant Wenaus and directed by Tobé Malawista) presented at SubCulture NYC on March 10 was no exception. This carefully curated recital carried the audience through journeys of all imaginable types: the lusty passion of young love, impossible romantic triangles, the world under the sea (real and imagined), the quirky and often lonely atmosphere of hotel stays, and finally, the restful repose of two lovers traveling alone with nowhere in particular to go. The program included a number of favorites from the standard repertoire, some lesser-known fare, and five exciting new commissions.
Opening the program was Duparc’s fitting chanson “L’invitation au voyage” performed with elegance by Murphree whose pianissimo high notes were used to great effect here and throughout the performance. Blumberg sang next, offering an impeccable rendition of Wolf’s “Auf einer Wanderung.” Easily one of the finest concert and recital singers of our generation, Blumberg’s contributions to the program were many-fold and his smooth legato phrasing, perfect diction, and beauty of tone never faltered. Finally, Slywotzky is an excellent partner to her collaborators. Possessing a full, rich soprano with a strong lower register, Slywotzky is a talented actress who radiates pure joy and ebullience onstage. Her opening selection (Haydn’s “The Mermaid’s Song”) was executed with finesse though the sheer size and richness of her instrument belied the lightness of the piece. However, later selections, such as the second song in Scott Wheeler’s song cycle, Letters to Isabella (an MVE commissioned-piece) were well-suited to showcase the roundness and warmth of her voice. In a refreshing change of pace, all three singers displayed a particular affinity and talent for the lighter fare on the program: Cole Porter’s hilarious “Tale of the Oyster” (made even more enjoyable by Murphree’s playfully earnest rendition), the hymn “He’s Gone Away” (movingly sung by Blumberg), and “Chanson” from Sondheim’s The Baker’s Wife (performed with exceptional tenderness and beauty by Slywotzky). Additional program highlights included Berlioz’s “L’île inconnue” (well-known from the cycle Les nuits d’été but performed here with the dialogue divided among the trio), as well as Samuel Barber’s narrative “Solitary Hotel” affectively staged by the group.
Unsurprisingly, the most successful works on the program were the five MVE commissions. The songs in Wheeler’s cycle Letters to Isabella are settings of the personal letters from friends of art collector/patron Isabella Gardner and are masterfully varied in their construction to capture the essence of each writer’s personality in music. In addition to the jaunty note from Paul Bourget (sung by Slywotsky), the group sang letters to texts by Henry James and Kakuzo Okakura (whose letter was actually directed at his cat, then in Gardner’s care). Also, the trio’s rendition of the scene “At the Windermere Hotel” from Tom Cipullo’s Nightmare at the Windermere Hotel was delightfully spot-on, both musically and dramatically, aided in no small part by Cipullo’s lush writing and brilliant interplay between the vocal and piano parts. The audience especially appreciated Slywotzky’s sharp comedic wit and over-the-top theatrics in this hilarious comedy-of-errors. Additionally, the trio’s acapella performance of Gilda Lyon’s “Great Barrier Reef” was incredibly well executed. The atmospheric piece, which calls for lip pops, sighs, and other non-singing vocal techniques to be seamlessly interwoven into a complex polyphony of atmospheric melodic phrases is doubtlessly demanding. However, this talented trio betrayed no sign of the work’s difficulty, and each singer carried their lines forward with grace and ease. The colorful “Bells at Saint-Aignan” by Deborah Fisher Teason served as one of several moments of calm tranquility in the midst of an otherwise energized excursion. The performance ended with William Ryden’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” (another piece commissioned by the group). With the air of a waltz song from an earlier era, this tale of two unlikely lovers—the owl and the pussycat—sailing away together provided a charming and satisfying end to the show’s voyage.
Pianist Grant Wenaus must be highly commended for his artistry and masterful collaboration with the singers. In each piece, he displayed a rare combination of technical virtuosity, excellent articulation, and balance that perfectly complemented and never overpowered the voices.
The Mirror Visions Ensemble continues their performances of Journey in France and California this spring, and the group will release The Three-Paneled Mirror, a CD comprised entirely of MVE commissions, in May 2015. This recording is sure to be a must-have addition for lovers of art song. MVE is most certainly a group to follow for anyone who truly appreciates beautiful singing, new works, art song, and thought-provoking programming.