American Composers at Play

2021 Grammy nominee for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album

Stephen Powell’s American Composers at Play features the works of William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman and John Musto, who all accompany Powell on their compositions. The CD was released on August 25, 2020 by Acis Productions. The Attaca Quartet, clarinetist Charles Neidich and guitarist Jason Vieaux also join.

Podcast: Classical Conversations – Stephen Powell: American Composers At Play

Journal of Singing, March/April 2021

This album … is a masterfully conceived and executed celebration of modern American art song that ranks with the finest such recordings…Powell’s concept was to choose four living art song composers who could also collaborate with him as pianists for their respective works. Powell could not have asked for finer artistic partners than William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman, and John Musto, four of our greatest living song composers…Lori Laitman is entrusted with the first track of this disc, and “The Wind Sighs” from her opera Ludlow is just the poetic opening that this marvelous collection deserves. At the other end of the expressive spectrum is the saucy fun of “Money,” Laitman’s sparkling setting of a delightful poem by Dana Gioia, the librettist for Laitman’s opera The Three Feathers and a poet to whom Laitman has repeatedly turned for inspiration. Perhaps the single most sublime song in this collection is Laitman’s “If I. . . . ,” an exquisite setting of the Emily Dickinson’s classic poem that climaxes with the refrain “I shall not live in vain.” Laitman’s loving treatment of this text epitomizes her greatness as a composer of songs, and Powell sings it gloriously. As for rollicking fun, it can be found in Laitman’s Men with Small Heads, featuring the wonderfully offbeat texts of Thomas Lux. Laitman reveals in the liner notes that she approached these texts with a bit of trepidation; one would never guess from the assurance of these settings. 

Fanfare Magazine, March/April 2021

Lori Laitman’s songs are unfailingly lyrical, and direct in their expressiveness. The first item is the Poet’s aria, “The Wind Sighs,” from Laitman’s opera LudlowLudlow is based on the infamous Ludlow Massacre of 1914 in Colorado, when striking coal miners were gunned down by National Guardsmen on the orders of the mine owners. “The Wind Sighs” is elegaic and heartbreakingly beautiful; it is sensitively sung by Powell…Overall, this collection encompasses a full range of eomtions communicated by four of our finest composers for voice in the era after Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem…Powell’s singing is superb.”

Gramophone Magazine, January/February 2021

Judged on artistic terms alone, Stephen Powell’s interpretations make for a deeply satisfying solo debut recital album. His achievement is all the more extraordinary for resonating so compellingly with our historical moment. The American baritone, who comes to this project after decades of experience as an opera performer, has put together a thoughtfully chosen, deeply felt programme of contemporary vocal writing by four of his compatriots…The composers in question are Lori Laitman, Ricky Ian Gordon, John Musto and William Bolcom, each the creator of a distinctive and prolific output of works for the voice…Yet another brand of humour, wildly imaginative, populates Laitman’s Men with Small Heads, a cycle setting poet Thomas Lux’s vividly eccentric snapshots of mid-20th-century America…Powell’s vocal and theatrical versatility comes into play throughout the album – in ways, as he points out, that have liberated his own ‘American voice’. — Thomas May. 

Opera News, February 2021 — A “Critic’s Choice”

Stephen Powell’s new album proves superb in both concept and execution — it’s one of the most interesting recitals of American song repertory in years…This 2020 project involved colaborating musically with four living exponents of American art song — William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Lori Laitman and John Musto…Laitman’s lovely “The Wind Sighs” derives from her opera Ludlow…Along with Laitman’s four-song cycle “Men with Small Heads (2000) — slyly composed to Thomas Lux poems drolly evoking 1950s America — the most intriguing repertoire here is Bolcom’s 2009 string quartet-accompanied “Billy in the Darbies,” a version very different in tone and emphasis from Britten’s Schubertian scene in Billy Budd…Powell’s blue-chip vocalism throughout showcases sterling legato, a wide dynamic range — including ringing forte high notes — and the ability to access head voice and even falsetto (in one Laitman number, when channeling a child)…The composers all prove accomplished pianists and also furnish booklet commentary on the music and set texts, and all the instrumental contributions are first-rate. — David Shengold

American Record Guide, January/February 2021

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 Ludlowwhich tells the story of the Ludlow Massacre in the 1913-14 coal-mining wars of southern Colorado when more than a dozen innocent people, mainly women and children, were killed when the Colorado National Guard burned down the tent colony of the 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 If I with piano and clarinet accompaniment, and the humorous song Money about its ubiquitous power. I’ve reviewed her songs before…and fine them exceptionally fine. — Robert Moore

Oberon’s Grove, October 13, 2020: Stephen Powell ~ American Composers At Play

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…Oberon’s Grove: Stephen Powell ~ American Composers At Play

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.

In 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…Oberon’s Grove: Stephen Powell ~ American Composers At Play

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 blessèd assurance of the quiet joys of human kindness, something so many people seem to have forgotten in this day and age…Oberon’s Grove: Stephen Powell ~ American Composers At Play

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.

From Broadway World, October 27, 2020 by Erica Miner:

“Thoughtfully programmed and splendidly executed, the recording is worthy of the highest praise, starting with unconditional admiration for Powell’s baritone voice, which sounds as glorious as ever…The program opens beautifully with Lori Laitman’s “The Wind Sigh,” 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 “Men with Small Heads” poke fun at human nature and add comic interest with the singer’s falsetto…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.”