AMERICAN PORTRAIT - from the Parlor to the Stage

There is certainly nothing new about American baritones singing their favorite American songs. It follows a long tradition established by singers such as John Charles Thomas and Lawrence Tibbett who flourished during the first half of the 20th century. These baritones influenced generations to come, not only with their singing, but with the repertoire they performed that went beyond standard operatic works and art songs to include folk songs, ballads, parlor songs, show tunes and popular concert songs of the day. Inspired by these singers, baritone Peter Halverson draws from the rich and diverse American song repertoire to create an American Portrait. From Ethelbert Nevin's 1891 setting of Eugene Fields' wistful "Little Boy Blue" to Marc Blitzstein's vaudevillian "Penny Candy" of 1945 to Gene Scheer's moving "Lean Away" of 1995 are heard over a century of songs that communicate with a beauty and simplicity that is immediate and heartfelt. Together these songs, old and new, favorites and forgotten, paint a landscape rich in the colors and flavors that is curiously and unmistakably American.

 

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Emily (The Ballad of the Bombardier) - This 1946 song is from Marc Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony, a cantata for men's chorus and soloists he composed while serving in the film and music unit of the Eighth Army Air Force. Taken from the symphony's Night Music section, this WWII ballad poignantly captures the emotions of a young pilot writing to his girlfriend the night before a bombing mission. As in almost all of his works, Blitzstein is also the lyricist. sound clip

Lean Away - A beautiful love song with words and music by contemporary composer Gene Scheer and arranged by Andrew Thomas, "Lean Away" is destined to become a favorite for many singers as it has for this singer. sound clip

Little Boy Blue - Poet Eugene Fields was a well-known journalist and writer of children's poetry, including "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" and "The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat." His poetry was considered charming yet often cloyingly sentimental. However, Fields' poem "Little Boy Blue," although still couched in the language and imagery of children's verse, carries a heart-rending message of grief and loss, written after the death of his young son. The music was written in 1891 by popular parlor song composer Ethelbert Nevin.

The Lamb - This poem by William Blake, from "Songs of Innocence," is the companion to "The Tyger" ("Tyger, tyger, burning bright") from "Songs of Experience." Blake presents the dichotomy of human experience - the journey from innocence at birth to experiencing complexity, power and brutality of the human world - as two sides to understanding the mystical whole of existence. Lee Hoiby's 1990 setting of this poem captures the eloquent and simple beauty of Blake's metaphor of the lamb as both child and Son of God.

Lady of the Harbor - Composed in 1990, this effective and powerful song brings to life the bold and inspirational words of poet Emma Lazarus from her sonnet "The New Colossus," which is engraved on the Statue of Liberty.

The New Suit - Also known as "Zipperfly," this cabaret song of Marc Blitzstein became a party favorite often sung at the piano by his friend, famed composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein. This 1945 song of a shoeshine boy dreaming of owning a new suit was thought to be intended for Blitzstein's A New York Opera, which never materialized. Blitzstein is again the lyricist.

In the Fields - John Duke composed this song in 1955 to words of Charlotte Mew, one of the last poets of the Victorian era and who was described by Virginia Woolfe as "the greatest living poetess." There is a spiritual wonder and transcendental longing in this song's reflection on the beauty of nature and its seasons.

At the River - From small churches to the great concert halls, Aaron Copland's 1954 setting of this hymn tune (originally titled "Beautiful River") by Quaker minister Rev. Robert Lowrey has become an American favorite.

Home on the Range - Published in 1930, David Guion's arrangement of this Texas cowboy song was first heard in his New York show "Prairie Echoes." It achieved wide popularity with the help of singers like John Charles Thomas and became a favorite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Shenandoah - One of the few genuinely American sea shanties, this traditional favorite seems to have originated in the early nineteenth century as a land ballad in the areas of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, with a story of a trader who fell in love with the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah. This beautiful 1948 arrangement by Celius Dougherty brings a slightly modern air to this celebrated folk tune.

From the Land of the Sky-blue Water - Composed in 1909, this is one of the few songs for which Charles Wakefield Cadman is still known today. During the early part of the 20th century when a romanticized interest in Native American Indians flourished, Cadman wrote several operas and numerous songs incorporating native melodies and themes. "From the Land of the Sky-blue Water" is based on an Omaha tribal melody and composed on a poem of Nelle Richmond Eberhart.

Mister Jim - This lighthearted, comical song was written in 1944 by Alfred Hay Malotte. Mostly known for his setting of the Lord's Prayer, Malotte was a composer of film scores and numerous Disney animations including Ferdinand the Bull. The text, originally entitled "It Happens Often," is by Edwin Meade Robinson.

Bless This House - Written in 1932, this song has been a long time American favorite and performed and recorded by such artists as Perry Como and Mahelia Jackson. Composed by May Brahe to the words of Helen Taylor, this song was frequently used by opera star Joan Sutherland as an encore in her recitals.

Sure on This Shining Night - This 1941 song has become a standard in the classical song repertoire. One of our great American composers, Samuel Barber, brings a haunting beauty to this evocation of the afterlife ("Description of Elysium") by James Agee from his only collection of poems, Permit Me Voyage.

When I Have Sung My Songs to You - This sentimental love song of 1934 with words and music by Ernest Charles was a one-time favorite encore of many leading artists and one of the songs for which Charles is most remembered.

Penny Candy - Written in 1945, the same year as "Emily" (track 1), this song comes from Marc Blitzstein's No For An Answer. In true vaudevillian style Blitzstein refers to this song as
"a primer in the art of panhandling."

Romany Honeymoon - This rollicking love song of 1933, celebrating the freedom and exotic flair of the gypsy life, was written for and performed by John Charles Thomas. Ernest Charles' music evokes early American operetta style with lyrics by Richard Atwater. Note: A "patteran" is a coded configuration of leaves, sticks and stones left at the roadside by Gypsies to communicate with each other.

Peter's CD is available online at Fargostuff.com.

 

 

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