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Kicking off a vocal fest at Tufts

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 26, 2009

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The conductor Gil Rose, after curating last year's Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music, is admirably keeping alive the vision of a local new-music festival in late September. This year's iteration, entitled "Voice of America," is underway at Tufts University's Granoff Music Center. It does not have the Ditson Fund's generous backing so it paints on a necessarily smaller canvas, but last night's opening performances made clear that it should be a richly rewarding weekend of American vocal music.

"Voice of America" is actually two festivals under one roof. The Florestan Recital Project is celebrating the upcoming Barber centenary with its own BarberFest, a survey of the composer's complete songs divided over three programs. Each one precedes an orchestral concert with vocal soloists joining Rose's Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Last night's opening installment of BarberFest suggested we are in for a well-prepared, meticulously assembled cycle. The Florestan directors chose to present not just the published works but also obtained permission from the Library of Congress and Barber's estate to present several unpublished songs that are almost never performed, including seven last night from his teenage years.

While his sense of craft was clearly still developing in these early works, the pieces did not feel like disconnected juvenilia. Rather, Barber from that young age seemed to already possess his core melodic instincts and a certain expressive openness that allows these very early songs to sit comfortably on a program with the composer's later music. The performances I heard — from sopranos Sarah Pelletier and Shadi Ebrahami, tenor Joe Dan Harper, and pianists Anne Kissel, Shiela Kibbe, and Linda Osborn-Blaschke — were accomplished and persuasive. It was a particular pleasure to hear these art songs presented in the clear, warm, and intimate acoustics of Tufts's Distler Hall.

The BMOP program opened with Scott Wheeler's delightful and witty "Gold Standard," with its two Buddhist monks (here, tenor Charles Blandy and baritone David Kravitz) parsing monetary policy en route to more profound truths. Carol Mastrodomenico ably sang two of John McDonald's formidable works — "Speech Made by Music" and "Put These in Your Pipe" — and Blandy took on Ronald Perera's vivid song cycle "Crossing the Meridian." Deadline forced an early departure, regretfully before hearing Andy Vores's "Goback Goback." The festival continues tonight and tomorrow, with the BMOP programs surveying earlier and, Milton Babbitt notwithstanding, more conservative music.

Holes in happiness

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