Sunday with Sondheim

On the afternoon of Sunday, September 28, 2014, the voice studio of Prof. Katherine Eberle presented a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs at the University of Iowa’s Recital Hall, located in the University Capital Center. The modest space was comfortably full of patrons who were entertained by a steady parade of selections from Sondheim’s Broadway songbook. Sondheim (Click this link for a truly comprehensive website of everything Sondheim!)

Generally speaking, this was an unusually early studio recital (after just one month since the start of classes). Many times, recitals are held in the later part of a given semester after months of planning, study and rehearsal. This particular effort was mounted by twelve undergraduate students, one graduate student, their mezzo-soprano mentor (Eberle), and a shared collaborative pianist. The material was brief for each soloist, and thus the interpretive possibilities were similarly limited (expression did not have to be developed over an entire scene, act or story arc). If one is to take-on an early semester recital, it might as well be divided-and-conquered with a number of other musicians, and the repertoire suitably comfortable in terms of its learning and execution (for the recitalists), and in its pleasing familiarity (for the audience).

After an engaging opening ensemble number (“Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), the vocalists took solo turns with their chosen Sondheim selection. Each piece of the program was supported by the solid and efficient piano accompaniment of DMA piano student, Christine Tithecott. Eberle, who contributed a performance of the title song from from Anyone Can Whistle, also acted as the audience’s tour guide by offering contextual insight between most the numbers. In addition to these program notes, the vocalists did their best to add interpretive insights in the form of modest staging and facial expressions.

The selections that elicited the strongest audience reaction seemed to result from a successful function of pairing a student’s voice type or range with a song that fit them. The best examples of this included Jennifer Boeding’s dark and introspective version of “Send in the Clowns” (A Little Night Music). Boeding’s lower alto range was never overshadowed by the piano, thanks to the mostly arpeggiated accompaniment. Master of Arts student Tessa Hoffman gave an enthusiastic and engaging performance of “The Girls of Summer” from the show of the same title. Hoffman’s mature instrument and understanding of the show’s story engaged the audience from the start of this song. She appropriately bent pitches in this bluesy song of regret, but still appropriately soared with a clear, full voice in the bridge.

In this setting, some of Sondheim’s musical signatures were occasionally hard to hear. Without a complete orchestral realization, the piano reduction lacked the spacial elements and timbral contrasts that typically allow the listener to enjoy Sondheim’s occasional harmonic excursions. For this performance, stretching moments of tenuto or rubato with a bit more temporal freedom might have given the audience just a bit more time to absorb Sondheim’s subtle inflections of dry wit or darker double meanings.

The rousing finale was again shared by the full studio ensemble. “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along was truncated and presented without the middle “squabble” scene. The ladies began on stage, and were joined by the gentlemen and their teacher for an ensemble treatment of the original trio setting. The song asked questions of what old friends can and should expect from each other. This was a selection that seemed to comment on the collaboration the singers experienced while staging the program, and underscored that they were now a cadre, a team, that after “having a laugh a minute, One day comes, And they’re part of your lives.”

As noted in Prof. Eberle’s opening remarks, “Sondheim’s work remains the standard by which all other American musical theatre productions are measured.” Sondheim’s shows have been mounted, revived, produced on cast albums (multiple iterations), performed on Broadway and on world-wide tours, and they have a place as part of America’s (albeit popular) art song. This recital may signify their emerging importance to vocal literature.


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