Last night, as part of Music on Main's Modulus Festival, Artistic Director David Pay programmed two song cycles for the 9 p.m. concert at Heritage Hall that couldn't have been more different. Yet the pairing absolutely worked.
First up was the world premiere of The Perruqueries, a set of five songs on the theme of "wigs gone awry," with text by Bill Richardson and music by Jocelyn Morlock, Modulus' composer-in-residence. The duo was commissioned by soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, baritone Tyler Duncan, and pianist Erika Switzer, and it proved an inspired collaboration. An adept of meter and a master of silly rhymes, Richardson's verse is suitably bathetic, adopting a mock heroic form reminiscent of Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock as he describes several follicular fiascos both factual (the opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, the hockey player Bobby Hull, the artist Andy Warhol, and a janitor at the CBC named Albert are all subjects) and fictional (a nursery rhyme about a pig and a thug and an elegy about real estate round out the offerings). Morlock's score matches Richardson's referentiality, a pastiche of musical quotations ranging from Puccini to the Canadian national anthem. All of this is handled by Dreidger-Klassen and Duncan with just the right mix of personality and dramatic flair, their voices rich and sonorous, their diction impeccable, and the personas they adopt never upstaging the music, which was played with spritely aplomb by Switzer.
After a brief set change, we were treated to four songs by the American composer Caroline Shaw, who recently won the Pulitzer Prize in music for a choral work that will receive its Canadian premiere this evening as part of the final program of the Festival. I gather that Shaw composes mostly for--and upon her own--voice. Last night she shared with us four traditional songs from her native North Carolina, all in their way meditations on death and passing in which, as she told us, she was trying to "liquify" the notes. She was aided in this endeavor by the Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook on violin, Jonathan Moerschel on viola, and Eric Byers on cello), who plucked and knocked their instruments as much as they drew their bows across strings. As for Shaw's voice, it's a beautiful instrument, not necessarily wide in range, but pure of timbre, with Shaw able to stretch notes horizontally in a way that is deeply resonant both acoustically and emotionally. Not so much the sound of lamentation as of consolation.
After a day that included a memorial service, it was an appropriate end to the evening.