A Master-Class in Poetic Nuance from Seemingly Modest Songs

United StatesUnited States Canteloube, Dvořák, Falla, Barber, Bernstein, Dove: Jennifer Johnson Cano (mezzo-soprano), Christopher Cano (piano), Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 31.1.2018. (BJ)

CanteloubeChants d’Auvergne (selection): ‘L’Antouèno’, ‘La delaïssádo’, ‘Lou coucut’
DvořákZigeunermelodien Op.55
FallaSiete canciones populares españolas
Barber – Three Songs Op.10: ‘Rain has fallen’, ‘Sleep now’, ‘I hear an army’
Bernstein – Three songs from West Side Story: ‘One Hand, One Heart’, ‘Somewhere’, ‘I Have a
DoveThree Tennyson Songs: ‘O Swallow, Swallow’, ‘Dark House’, ‘The Sailor-boy’

What promised, on paper, to be a relatively undemanding and domestically based evening of lightweight songs turned, in the event, into a musical experience of close to epic seriousness.

The winner of several important awards, St. Louis native Jennifer Johnson Cano has appeared more than 100 times at the Metropolitan Opera since winning the company’s auditions in 2008. It was immediately evident in the evening’s opening group from the Songs of the Auvergne that she is possessed of a mezzo-soprano voice that combines tonal beauty with at times awe-inspiring power. She wields it with the utmost smoothness. And it became clear from the rest of a program that ranged linguistically from those songs’ Occitan texts, by way of German and Spanish, to the English set by Barber, Bernstein, and the 58-year-old London-born Jonathan Dove, that her care for clarity and expressiveness of diction is unremitting, and extends to an unusually precise yet delicate way with final “r”s.

While all these qualities revealed the widely differing musical characters of the cleverly chosen repertoire she was singing, her husband, Christopher Cano, was no whit less impressive in his command of the keyboard, responding to his scores with frequently dazzling strength of tone and lucidity of texture. Altogether the recital was something of a master-class in the realization of poetic nuance. As absorbing as the other composers’ texts were, Dove’s Tennyson poems, especially ‘O Swallow, Swallow’, instantly lifted the quality of the literary discourse to a strikingly higher level.  An enthusiastic ovation from the audience was rewarded, by way of encore, with John Jacob Niles’s ‘Go ‘way from my window’, performed, again, with compelling understanding and skill.

Bernard Jacobson

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