2021 Grammy® Nomination for Stephen Powell’s “American Composers at Play”

Baritone Stephen Powell‘s debut CD American Composers at Play: William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman, John Musto — has been nominated for a 2021 Grammy ® nomination.

In his notes to the CD, Powell says “For decades I’ve wanted to perform the work of living composers with the composers themselves playing their compositions…these four giants have liberated my American voice.”

It was truly a delight to record with Stephen (even though it required months of me practicing beforehand)! Included from my catalog is The Poet’s aria The Wind Sighs from my opera-in-progress Ludlow (libretto by David Mason); Men with Small Heads (poems by Thomas Lux); If I… (the last of my Four Dickinson Songs, in an arrangement for baritone, clarinet and piano, with Charles Neidich); and Money (poem by Dana Gioia). This was the last project I did before Coronavirus changed the world and the musical landscape.

The CD was produced by Geoffrey Silver and Acis Productions. For more information about the CD, please click here.

Excerpts from reviews:

American Record Guide (Robert Moore):

For his first solo album, Stephen Powell has produced a magnificent program of songs with texts by American writers set by four of America’s best composers…It would be hard to find a better album of contemporary American songs than this. The program gets off to a poignant start with an aria from Lori Laitman’s opera Ludlow, which tells the story of the Ludlow Massacre in the 1913-14 coal-mining wars of southern Colorado when more than a dozen innocent people, mostly women and children, were killed when the Colorado National Guard burned down the tent colony of strikers protesting brutal conditions. Later we hear her set of four off-beat songs, Men with Small Heads; a lovely setting of Emily Dickinson’s touching `If I’ with piano and clarinet accom- paniment; and the humorous song, `Money’, about its ubiquitous power. I’ve reviewed her songs before (M/A 2007, S/O 2009, S/O 2011) and find them exceptionally fine…

This is one of the best collections of Ameri- can songs by current composers you’ll find anywhere. The performances are everything you could hope for. 


Broadway World (Erica Miner):

The program opens beautifully with Lori Laitman’s The Wind Sighs, Poet’s aria from Act 1 of Ludlow (2012). This lush, passionate composition reflects a poet’s musings about the arroyos of Colorado, which he remembers from his childhood, and expresses regrets about the loss of his youth and its familiar places. “The blue was cold…the red was blood…of the immigrants.” The vocal range drifts into baritenore territory; Powell negotiated the very high tessitura with ease and great beauty…The clever lyrics in Laitman’s Men with Small Heads poke fun at human nature and add comic interest with the singer’s falsetto…A large chunk of the repertoire portrays certain truths about American life, death and money. Laitman’s Money is the most operatic of the works, and Powell spins every note and word as if born to them; perhaps he was.

Oberon’s Grove (Oberon):

Baritone Stephen Powell has released a new disc of songs by American composers, and it’s a treasure…Even before the singing starts, the crystalline piano figuration that opens Lori Laitman’s The Wind Sighs (from her opera LUDLOW lures the ear. Mr. Powell then begins to sing, movingly expressing the text, by David Mason, which tells of the land and the sky of Colorado. At “…into the blue” the singer’s tone is suffused with tenderness, sending the first of several chills up my spine; then the voice turns mighty at “…the eyes of Heaven”. The song ends powerfully, mourning the blood shed by the immigrants who built this country. I found several songs to love on this disc, but The Wind Sighs is one that I came back to several times…

In Lori Laitman’s cycle Men With Small Heads, I found so many associations from my youthful years in the poetry of Thomas Lux. The poet was born in 1946, two years before me, which must account for the shared visions his writing summons forth: the mere mention of Maraschino cherries made me laugh out loud. In the cycle’s title song, Mr. Powell relishes the droll lyrics, the voice capturing the colours of this small-town panorama. Next is the hilarious Refrigerator 1957;this scene could have been set in my mom’s kitchen, as every reference brings forth a memory. The poet’s description of the “…heart red, sexual red, wet neon red…” of the Maraschino cherries is spot on: how often I would snitch one from the half-full little jar. Ms. Laitman, at the piano, savours the wit and occasional waltziness of her score, whilst Mr. Powell brings this slice of 1950s Americana into vivid focus, making it feel like he’s singing directly to me. A Small Tin Parrot Pin brings more recollections: a piece of cheap jewelry could become a childhood treasure (mine was a ring I had found one day, which I believed could cast spells on people I hated. At least once, it worked.) The significance of the pin to its owner is wonderfully detailed in Mr. Lux’s poetry, again rendered so perfectly by the singer. Snake Lake, the Lux poem could have been written with me in mind: snakes have always terrified me. The poet provides cover for us ophidiophobes: “There is no shame in avoiding what will kill you.” From start to finish, this Laitman/Lux cycle pleased and charmed me, and I can’t imagine it better done than by the Powell-Latman duo…

Lori Laitman turns to one of Emily Dickinson’s loveliest poems for If I…, in which Charles Neidich joins Mr. Powell; together they captivatingly serve up the melodious flow of the song, which Ms Laitman wrote for her father on his 80th birthday. This song brings the blessings and assurance of the quiet joys of human kindness, something so many people seem to have forgotten in this day and age…

Ms. Laitman’s Money, words by Dana Gioia, features several timeless catch-phrases about cash. The song has the feel of a carnival barker’s cries.