Review: PCMS ‘Emerging Voices’ ends with a big American bang, including new songs from Nico Muhly
By David Patrick Stearns
The conclusion of a musical odyssey can’t help but have its own mixture of exaltation, relief, and maybe incredulity over the size of the accomplishment — which was palpably the case when Philadelphia Chamber Music Society wrapped up its two-week, six-concert Emerging Voices: Art Song & Social Connection project.
The final concert on Friday at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater was among the most ambitious — titled The Rise of the American Voice — with the project’s curator/tenor Nicholas Phan premiering a new work by Nico Muhly (known both for commissions by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera) amid a shifting cast of singers, including Corinne Winters. She stepped in with much unfamiliar repertoire after Melody Moore stepped out.
Where the concert became magical — and I don’t use that word lightly — was in the three newer pieces. Tania Leon’s 1994 “Oh Yemanja” (Mother’s Prayer) had free-floating imagery by Wole Soyinka, with beautifully molded vocal lines accompanied by haiku-like musical gestures by cello and piano. Caroline Shaw’s 2019 “And So” had the kind of vocal lines that could have been written only by a singer (which she is), with self-authored texts riffing on Gertrude Stein’s famous “A rose is a rose” quotation. In contrast to previous generations, Shaw was emotionally forthright, conveying great longing, some bitterness, and much in between. That piece, in an excellent performance by Winters and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, rightly had the strongest audience reaction of the concert.
In the tradition of word-dominated songs, Muhly showcased some fairly volatile ideas with vocal lines fashioned with clear, unheated rhetoric — all buoyed by string quartet accompaniment full of post-minimalist arpeggios. Muhly is usually impressive, but this is a piece you can take to your heart, especially in the well-studied, beautifully polished performance by Brooklyn Rider and Phan at his articulate best.