Sights and Sounds on Sundays, the collaborative effort of the N.C. Museum of Art and the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, set as one of its main goals to highlight relationships between music and the fine arts. Just how the connection would be implemented was left to the individual performing artists. Last year, Soprano Louise Toppin and pianist John O'Brien created a feast for the eyes and ears by selecting songs, each of which they paired in subject and mood with a complementary painting.
Last Sunday, Aug. 20, Duo Nuovo, consisting of soprano Terry Rhodes of UNC-Chapel Hill and mezzo-soprano Ellen Williams of Meredith College, accompanied by composer and pianist Benton Hess of UNC-Greensboro, presented a similar two-media program. Since the program consisted entirely of duets for two women, many of the paintings and sculptures from the NCMA's permanent collection featured a woman or pairs of women whose faces, stances or coloring aptly reflected the mood of both text and music. The program was extremely well conceived, both musically and visually. Rhodes and Williams have collaborated on many occasions and are clearly comfortable enough with each other to pull off the mini-staging that accompanied their singing without seeming stilted or awkward. All the works of art presented were accompanied by clear, informative and entertaining comments by both singers. We learned about the artists, the subjects and often the circumstances surrounding the paintings. The works of art providing visual imagery for the music were well-chosen and often added a poetic dimension to the music that would not have immediately occurred to listeners confronting the music alone.
Sadly, despite their fine interpretive musicianship, neither Rhodes nor Williams has the vocal texture or technique to make the most of the duet. When you pair two voices that are so close in range, precision of intonation and timing is crucial. But both singers have very wobbly vibratos that were frequently out of sync with each other, and muddied the close harmonies so characteristic of this type of musical writing. The problem surfaced immediately in the opening selections, two pastoral songs from Henry Purcell's King Arthur, where the range of the two voices is so close that any vibrato becomes jarring and sounds like out-of-tune singing. Crystal-clear parallel harmony with impeccable pitch control is hard to come by, but when it works, it sends the right kind of shivers down your spine. The French melodies by Ernest Chausson and Pauline Viardot-Garcia that followed fared no better and also suffered from poor diction.
The main theme of the second half of the program was the psychology of aging. It consisted exclusively of works commissioned by the Duo Nuovo, which played up the humorous and satiric side of the issue. This allowed the two singers to descend from the rarified air of high art and mannered vibrato to employ, for them, a far more effective declamatory and sometimes even "Broadway" style. It also allowed them to use expressive body and face language to highlight the texts. The composers of the second half, Benton Hess--who provided the exceptionally fine accompaniment as well as humorous comments on his own compositions--Elizabeth Walton Vercoe and Timothy Hockman also kept the two women in their mid-range where both their declamation and pitch control were at their best.
Timothy Hockman's Margarets, two songs denoting the contrasting moods of a young girl were matched by a haunting portrait that belied the second of the two texts, "Merry Margaret." Irreveries from Sappho by Elizabeth Walton Vercoe and Atrocities by Benton Hess, were fine examples of musical humor in which the admittedly aging (thus our title Invecchiando) singers clearly reveled in the self-irony.