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Words Inspiring Music

Frankly Music breaks ground with program of art songs

Dec. 11, 2013
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The Frankly Music series broke new ground last week by adding a singer into its chamber music mix. Baritone Kelly Markgraf, who grew up in Cedarburg, was the featured soloist in a concert last week at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

Markgraf and pianist Jeannie Yu presented convincing renditions of Franz Schubert’s great song “Der Erlkönig,” and Ned Rorem’s War Scenes, settings of heightened prose by Walt Whitman of Civil War observations. Markgraf’s voice has more size than a purely lyric vocal instrument. He has richness of color, especially in the middle range, and attractive presentation, though there were a few times when I wanted more freedom in his singing. Yu gamely tackled the relentlessness of the Schubert song and the spiky difficulties of the Rorem set.

Markgraf was also soloist in a good performance of Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, for baritone and string quartet, joining violinists Frank Almond and Margot Schwartz, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Julian Schwarz. I loved the opportunity to hear this early Barber work, which the composer himself sang in his young years.

The unifying theme of the program was words inspiring music. Almond and Yu performed transcriptions of three art songs by Barber. Since I wrote the transcriptions, I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to comment. I will simply say that this music found Almond in his element as a player, spinning out expressive, romantic lyricism.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was written in reaction to a romantic poem by Richard Dehmel about a pregnant woman who falls in love with a man who embraces her child as his own, though he is not the father. Violist Wei-Ting Kuo and cellist Stephen Balderston joined the aforementioned string players for this sextet. Gorgeous tone and sensitive ensemble playing made this magical masterpiece one of the high points for me in all the years of Frankly Music concerts.

My only quibble with the program is that it was a big dose of contemplation, melancholy or darkness. Perhaps something of a different, lighter mood would have enhanced the arch of it. At least Transfigured Night had a happy ending.


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