United States Various composers: Kayleigh Decker (mezzo-soprano), Madeline Slettedahl (piano). Carnegie Hall Citywide, St. Michael’s Church, New York, 11.1.2020. (RP)
Traditional – ‘Let Us All Speak Our Minds’, ‘Give the Ballot to the Mothers’, ‘Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?’
Florence Price – ‘Out of the South Blew a Wind’, ‘Night’, ‘Sympathy’
Alma Mahler – Fünf Lieder
Germaine Tailleferre – ‘Non, la fidélité’
Cécile Chaminade – ‘Ronde d’amour’
Lily Boulanger – ‘Dans l’immense tristesse’
Nadia Boulanger – ‘Soir d’hiver’
Ethel Smyth – Three Songs
For their recital at St. Michael’s Church on New York’s Upper West Side, the elegant mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Decker and the exciting pianist Madeline Slettedahl conceived a program that was fresh and entertaining, with a political edge that created just the right amount of frisson. The recital was part of Carnegie Hall’s Citywide series: free concerts, presented in conjunction with community organizations throughout New York City, that feature everything from Yiddish folk music to rhythm and blues and Japanese taiko drumming. That this year’s series includes two vocal recitals demonstrates Carnegie Hall’s unswerving commitment to the art of the song.
Decker and Slettedahl focused on works by prominent women composers active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they added a twist by interspersing three songs from the Suffragette Movement. Their inspiration was the 100th anniversary in 2020 of the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits federal and state governments from denying the right to vote to US citizens on the basis of sex. The three songs – ‘Let Us All Speak Our Minds’, ‘Give the Ballot to the Mothers’, ‘Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?’ – were rallying cries that Decker delivered with an arch sense of humor.
The Suffragette works were the hook used to draw the audience into a program of songs by women composers active during the era when the movement to obtain voting rights for women began to gain momentum and eventually came to fruition. With the briefest of remarks, Decker and Slettedahl provided the context on how these very disparate composers and their music fit into the long arc of the struggle for gender equality. The composers lived fascinating lives, and many were highly regarded in their lifetimes. All, however, were marginalized by most of their male colleagues and the public for writing what was deemed women’s music.
At one extreme, Alma Schindler had to abandon her ambitions to be a composer as the quid pro quo for Gustav Mahler agreeing to marry her. Some seventeen-odd songs, composed prior to her marriage, are all that survive of her work. Unlike her husband who turned to poets of the past, Alma Mahler set the words of her contemporaries. The lush, post-romantic chromaticism and emotional fervor of her songs instantly evoke pre-World War I Vienna.
A favorite of Queen Victoria, Cécile Chaminade was also popular in America and was the first woman composer to be made a member of the French Légion d’Honneur. Florence Price was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Price’s ‘Sympathy’, which concludes with the words ‘I know why the caged bird sings!’, was a combination of words and music that resonated on so many levels in the context of this concert.
Germaine Tailleferre, the only woman in the post-World War I group of young French composers known as Les Six, was still composing music into her nineties. Lili Boulanger died at the age of 25, but her sister Nadia would go on to be the teacher of many of the most illustrious musicians of the mid-twentieth century, including Aaron Copland, Burt Bacharach and Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
The emotional highpoint of the recital was Nadia Boulanger’s ‘Soir d’hiver’, for which she wrote both the text and the music. Composed in the early days of World War I, it is the song of a woman rocking her infant son whose father has abandoned them. The audience’s reaction to the final words of the song in which the baby boy holds a man’s heart was palpable.
For over 100 years, Ethel Smyth had the distinction of being the only woman to have an opera, Der Wald, performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Active in Britain’s suffragist movement, she also served 100 days in Holloway Prison, where conductor Sir Thomas Beecham found her leaning out of the window of her cell and conducting with a toothbrush the march that she had written for the suffragettes.
Every note that Decker, the possessor of a shimmering mezzo-soprano, sang was pure vocal gold. She has that essential quality for a song recitalist: the ability to create miniature worlds through her voice, expressive face and judiciously employed hand movements. Most importantly, her voice is equal to the expectations that her innate glamour and poise instantly raise. In other words, as a friend put it after the recital, she’s the whole package.
Slettedahl likewise is an extraordinarily expressive pianist, ever alert to the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic nuances of a song. The clarity she brought to the lusher, more chromatic accompaniments of the Mahler and Price songs was particularly impressive. Slettedahl abided by the accompanist’s playbook, dressed in black and never playing too loudly, but her graceful arm movements and facial expressions created their own special sense of drama.
As there were no program notes, the audience knew little of the composers’ back stories, freeing them to experience the music on its own terms. That’s the way it should be. George Auric, another member of Les Six, once said, ‘I don’t know if there is masculine music, feminine music, androgynous music, lesbian music or pederastic music. For me, there is music, and that is all’. And Decker and Slettedahl demonstrated what exceptionally fine and captivating music this was.
For more information no Carnegie Hall’s Citywide series, click here.