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The song cycle Ariel -- 5 Poems of Sylvia Plath for Soprano, Clarinet, and Piano (1971) represents a very different Rorem. Plath's death-obsessed texts are deeply disturbing. The composer has set this poetry (with its brutal references to suicide and Nazi atrocities) in an angular, dissonant musical idiom. At times the vocal line borders on atonality. Crashing chords pound out from the piano line while the clarinet speaks in a tonal, coolly cerebral mode. The soprano's vocal writing makes wild leaps into the uppermost register. To articulate the text clearly is a major challenge in this intense, often angry work. (The music's occasional lyricism and calm generate from the clarinet line.) The score was originally written for the great American soprano and teacher Phyllis Curtin. Soprano Jana Young (a University of Miami School of Music faculty member) accomplished the near impossible. She encompassed the bold leaps and wide range of the vocal part splendidly -- always singing with strongly focused tone and perfect intonation. Her diction was excellent. Almost every word of Plath's poetry was clear despite the punishing vocal writing. Clarinetist Margaret Donaghue played with beauty and elegance. The blend of Donaghue's clarinet and Young's soprano was exquisite. Pianist Russell Young (Ms Young's husband) was a tower of strength at the keyboard. Here was a powerful and moving performance. Ms Young also sang Rorem's early Alleluia (1946). This is one of the composer's earliest existing works. He repeats the word 'Alleluia!' forty seven times. The music is both jazzy and prayerful. Ms Young sang this Rorem signature piece in a clear toned, ringing soprano voice with splendid piano obbligato by Mr Young.

From left to right: Tian Ying, piano; Pamela McConnell, viola; Glenn Basham, violin; Jana Young, soprano; Ross Harbaugh, cello; Ned Rorem; Margaret Donaghue, clarinet; Russell Young, piano; Scott Flavin, violin; Christine Nield, flute. Photo: Lynn Parks
From left to right: Tian Ying, piano; Pamela McConnell, viola; Glenn Basham, violin; Jana Young, soprano; Ross Harbaugh, cello; Ned Rorem; Margaret Donaghue, clarinet; Russell Young, piano; Scott Flavin, violin; Christine Nield, flute. Photo: Lynn Parks

Songs from An Unknown Past (1951) was a real surprise. Here Rorem set seven poems in English madrigal style. The choral part writing is masterful. There is an elegance and lilt in this music that is irresistible. Witty, dance-like melodies abound in this engaging score. The University of Miami Chamber Singers sang this music superbly. The pure, high tones of the sopranos were ravishing. The ensemble's rhythmic precision was marvelous. Presiding over this splendid choral group was Jo-Michael Scheibe, UM's master choral conductor. One can always count on Scheibe to unearth interesting and unique choral works. This Rorem score is a real gem. Scheibe commanded bright toned singing from his excellent chamber vocal group.

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Copyright © 13 November 2003 Lawrence Budmen, Miami Beach, USA

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