Living in the Body

This new double CD was released by Naxos on December 13, 2019. It features 49 songs composed between 1997 and 2017 to texts by celebrated poets including Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Celan, Dana Gioia, David Mason, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Sutphen and others. The topics range from the profound emotional impact of the Holocaust, to the humorous truths of everyday life, and the comedy and tenderness of childhood. The set also includes two works for saxophone and piano. This stunning program of world premiere recordings is performed by an all-star cast, including the composer herself.

Here is Gregory Berg’s review from the May/June 2020 issue of The Journal of Singing:

Lori Laitman is one of America’s most prolific, accomplished, and admired art song composers, but the informal biography on her website tells the astonishing story of how she might not have ever entered the arena of art song in the first place were it not for the relentless insistence of soprano Lauren Wagner, her good friend and former roommate. In 1991, Wagner won a Concert Artists Guild competition that would give her the opportunity to make her first professional recording. Wagner reached out to Laitman, her friend since their days at Interlochen, and begged her to compose something that Wagner could sing for her debut CD. At this point, Laitman was strictly a composer of instrumental music with no idea how one went about composing a serious art song. Anxious not to disappoint her friend, Laitman began looking through books of poetry in search of a text that might inspire her. Before long, she found herself drawn to the work of Sara Teasdale, and by the end of the year Laitman had set Teasdale’s “The Metropolitan Tower” to music. Amazingly, Laitman’s very first art song was nothing less than a masterpiece, and it was just the spark of what would become a truly glorious career. Almost three decades and more than three hundred songs later, Laitman’s creative flame shows no signs of flickering. Whether in the intimate context of art song or on the more expansive canvas of opera, Lori Laitman continues to create vocal music of the very highest standard. Thank goodness for the determined friend who would not take no for an answer.

This two-disk set from Naxos, part of their highly regarded series called American Classics, is the result of several years of tireless and diligent work by Laitman to create recordings of her songs that had not yet been committed to disk. As if this weren’t already a formidable undertaking, she was also determined to rerecord those songs that had been revised since receiving their initial recordings. Thus, every one of the more than fifty pieces contained on these disks is either a world premiere recording or in some way a new recording. They span twenty years of her career and represent a dizzying array of colors, moods, and textures. Needless to say, a project of these dimensions does not come together easily nor quickly. The actual recording sessions back in 2017 were followed by months of editing, ordering of tracks, and crafting of program notes. The result of all this work is a monument to excellence and a potent reminder of the mysterious magic that occurs when poetry and music are combined with such mastery and such love.

This release is powerfully moving even before one has listened to a single measure of the remarkable music it contains. The program notes, lovingly crafted by the composer herself, testify to the rich web of relationships that are the very essence of a career like Laitman’s. Every one of these works sprang from someone’s desire for a new piece of music to enter the world. In some cases, it was a commission to honor someone’s memory or to support an important cause. In other cases, it was a gifted singer in search of something new and exciting for them to perform. Some of the stories shared in these program notes are of projects that fell dormant for one reason or another, only to be revived down the road and given new life. In one instance, it was a misunderstanding with a poet that caused access to a particular poem to be withdrawn, but which led the original song to be reconceived as a poignant instrumental piece for saxophone and piano titled “Journey.” The stories behind many of these works speak to the unpredictable nature of the creative life where carefully laid plans are sometimes discarded in favor of the reinvigoration of new possibilities.

Sadly, there is no way to chronicle all of the musical glories to be found in these two disks, but several overarching themes are paramount. One is Laitman’s uncanny ability to enhance the intrinsic qualities of every text she sets to music. From the pungent verse of Sylvia Plath to the sweeping beauty of a verse from Isaiah, Laitman’s music always draws us deeper into the text at hand. Another of her most important qualities is an unerring understanding of how the human singing voice operates and what kind of melodic lines bring out the best in voices. Laitman may have begun her musical life as a flutist, but she has a singer’s heart and a singer’s ear. She also knows how to craft music that will perfectly suit a particular voice. One of the clearest indications of that comes early on the first disk when we move from The Blood Jet, written for the gleaming soprano of Sari Gruber, to Sable Pride, which was composed for warmer, duskier sound of countertenor Darryl Taylor.

Again and again on these disks, we experience the perfect matching of music to voice. But the songs of Lori Laitman are about much more than what the singer gets to sing. Her piano accompaniments are exquisitely crafted in a way that makes them more than mere accompaniments while always supportive of the singer. Incidentally, one of the four fine pianists who are heard here to such great advantage is Andrew Rosenblum, who is one of the composer’s sons. But Laitman does not limit herself to the customary pairing of piano and voice. Living in the Body, which gives this release its title, is a setting of six poems by Joyce Sutphen that combines soprano voice with saxophone in a manner that sounds exactly right. This is one of several instances in which instruments other than piano are used to telling effect. It is also important to acknowledge the thematic range that this collection represents. We experience everything from the horrors of the Holocaust to the comic tedium of a second date. The world of poetry can take us anywhere, and when the words are set to just the right music, the journey becomes even more vivid.

Laitman shares helpful background information on every single work, and biographies are included of every musical participant. Full texts are available in an online supplement. This release is a treasure trove both for fans of the composer as well as for those who are discovering the riches of her work for the first time.

Here is the Fanfare Magazine review by Colin Stuart Clarke:

Lori Laitman proved herself a songstress extraordinaire previously, notably with the Albany disc Within These Spaces (Fanfare 33:1) and the Naxos release Vedem (Fanfare 35:2). Here is an act of generosity, a gift to the community of song: two well-filled discs of solo songs and duets, with the occasional solo instrumental piece.

This journey in song begins with two settings of the poet Joan Joffe Hall, “Illumination” and “The Joy of Uncreating”; the umbrella title is that of the second poem (2013, revised 2016). Premiered in 2018 with baritone and piano, they are heard here in a version for mezzo. One of many world premiere recordings presented here, the two songs immediately draw us into Laitman’s world. Song is her natural territory; the sheer flow of “Illumination” and the joy encapsulated in “The Joy of Unknowing” are addictive. Andrew Rosenblum is beautifully responsive to Laitman’s thoroughly idiomatic writing, while Margaret Gawrysiak is supremely confident.

The composer herself is pianist for The Blood Jet (2010, revised 2017), a setting of four poems by Sylvia Plath; the soprano Sari Gruber is also the work’s dedicatee. Spreading to some quarter of an hour, the effect is that one is able to immerse oneself fully in this miraculous world. The delicious serenity of “Morning Song” cedes to the expressive “The Rival.” But the true power of this cycle resides in Laitman’s portrait of depression, “Kindness,” wherein the piano part is cut down to a minimum. The final song, “Balloons,” is intriguing. The poet memorably refers to balloons as “oval soul animals”; there is a deeper aspect to this song, although levity certainly surfaces. Yet the song’s closing gestures, with notes from the piano’s treble falling like water droplets, remain infinitely touching.

Poetry by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen forms the basis of Sable Pride (2013, revised 2017). It was commissioned by the present performer, countertenor Darryl Taylor, whose fruity, full sound seems perfect. The second poem, “Incident,” points up the power of words, with the “N”-word provoking huge emotion in the protagonist, who, out of a whole summer in Baltimore, only remembers that one incident when he was insulted in that manner. Laitman’s use of the lower reaches of the piano is most effective before the far more settled portrait of harmony and love in the final “Tableau.”

The setting of a portion of Isaiah constitutes Laitman’s sole Biblical setting, And I Will Bring Them (2001, revised severally). It is beautifully tender, with a Jewish slant to its harmonies. Taylor’s strong voice suits the intensity of the belief encapsulated in the text to perfection.

The name Vale Ridout is new to me, but this particular tenor’s expertise in Laitman’s Two William Carlos Williams Songs (1997, revised 2008 and 2017) is exceptional. The two songs provide a striking contrast, with the more serious first one ceding to a jazz-inflected successor.

The twofer takes its title from the next song-cycle, Living in the Body (2001, revised 2017), a sequence of six songs to texts by Joyce Sutphen, the current Poet Laureate of Minnesota. The first thing to notice is the lack of a piano; this is scored for soprano and saxophone and was premiered by the Arden Duo (Sandra McLain and Carolyn Bryan) in 2002. Here, it is Maureen McKay and the haunting alto sax of Gary Louie that do the honors. The themes are love, memory, and resilience as a woman ages. Touchingly, the second song (titled, as is the cycle, “Living in the Body”) is the poem the composer read at her mother’s funeral. One can only imagine the resilience that took from Laitman, but if her personality is anything like her music, I imagine it was done with both love and the utmost dignity. The poem is astonishingly touching: Lines such as “No forwarding address,” the final words, cut to the quick. But there is humor there, too: the body as something that will “demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake” (although personally I’d only take the apples if they were in the chocolate cake). McKay takes on a positively trumpet-like delivery when that instrument is mentioned at the lines “Let the rainy sky be filled with jazz: drizzling saxophones, rivers of trumpet, xylophone pools.” Yet maybe it is the haunting lament of the final “Crossroads” that lingers in memory the most.

It was the well-known singer Wolfgang Holzmair that commissioned Todesfuge (Death Fugue, 2010, revised 2013), a setting of Celan that shows Laitman is unafraid of any subject. “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” says the text; “Death is a master from Germany.” An unremitting march is at the heart of this setting for the unusual combination of male voice and cello (baritone Randall Scarlata and cellist Thomas Kraines). There are elements that reflect fugue in the text, and Laitman responds to them. In total contrast comes ’Tis Philosophy (2011, revised 2017, words by Emily Dickinson), a calm meditation on the mystery of time and how we as humans deal with it. Laitman’s frequent collaborator Sari Gruber is the fine soprano.

A cycle of five poems, Five Lovers (2004, revised 2017), sets texts by Jāma Jandroković, who incidentally was also the soprano solo at the premiere in 2005 in New York. The journey here is that of a newly divorced woman in New York City. There is something of a Schumannesque lyricism to the lines, with Alisa Jordheim’s delivery as fresh as a daisy. There are bucket-loads of truth here in “Second Date”: the unspoken thoughts in stark counterpoint to the social norms and conventions. The bittersweet atmosphere that Laitman is so expert at creating is heard in its full glory here.

From poetry to letters, and Laitman’s first setting of a letter (by Mike Gioia): Dear Future Roommate (2015, revised 2017). I particularly enjoyed the sentiment that English people all drink Earl Grey tea and eat soggy crumpets (it’s more builder’s tea and toast), but actually the whole letter is hilarious. It’s a treat that the singer gets to whistle, too: Tenor Vale Ridout is brilliantly bonkers, with the composer also clearly having fun at the piano. The first disc closes with What You Wanted (2011, revised 2017), to a text by Joyce Sutphen about the vagaries of the postal system (it’s nice to know that such problems are not just in the UK) and the power of the impulse purchase.

The glorious flow of I Am in Need of Music (1999, revised 2017), a duet for soprano and baritone, is the perfect start to the second disc. Andrew Rosenblum’s contribution on piano is particularly warm and inviting, due in no small part to his harmonic awareness. The text is from the 1929 poem Sonnet by Elizabeth Bishop. The texts for the three-song cycle On the Green Trail (2007, revised 2017) are similarly taken from a larger source, this time Jeff Gundy’s Deerflies. A celebration of the beauty of the world and of nature, Laitman’s setting honors these sentiments with real tenderness: The deceptive simplicity of the second song, “Looking at my hands,” contains whole worlds, rising to a climax that asks us to fight for what is good, while a hymnic aspect to “Small Night Song from Oneonta” reflects its adaptation of a Mennonite hymn.

The haunting Journey for alto sax and piano (2008) is more than just an interlude; it is (actually in this case literally) a song without words: It was composed as a song but the permission to use the words was retracted, so the melody was recycled (in the best possible way) for this soulful little offering. Alto saxophonist Gary Louie is as near to being vocal as an instrument can get, eloquent, perfectly in tune—altogether splendid. Later, Lullaby (2000), for the same combination of artists, performs a similar function between two different cycles. (I wonder if I can detect a French influence on this latter piece?)

That piece is sandwiched by two song cycles, the second of which is River of Horses (2005, revised 2017) to poems by Baudelaire, James Wright, and James Dickey, plus a traditional Navajo song. The Baudelaire is sung in English. Perhaps the most touching is the extended second song, “A blessing,” at the end of which, after the horse comes up to the protagonist and nuzzles him, there is a realization for the narrator that if they stepped out of their bodies they would break into a blossom. This is truly lovely, both poetically and in Laitman’s tender setting. A nursery rhyme-like lilt characterizes Laitman’s setting of a Navajo song, “The War God’s Horse Song.” This is the first appearance of soprano Jennifer Check on the twofer, and she sings with an art which conceals art.

The duet (Ashley Emerson and Dominic Armstrong) The Act, to a text by H. L. Hix (2010, revised 2017), concerns the dynamics between two members of a knife-throwing circus act. Laitman’s setting includes moments of tenderness as well as drama. This is a terrific little scena that would enliven any duet recital.

The emphasis of the second disc on musical partnerships continues with Laitman’s 2007 setting of The Silver Swan (yes, to the text by Orlando Gibbons). Set for voice, flute, and piano, with beautifully eloquent contributions from Maureen McKay and flutist Emily Skala, and with the composer at the piano, it is shot through with reflective beauty. Margaret Gawrysiak and Randall Scarlata combine in On a Photograph (2004, revised 2017), a setting whose conversational tone and long lines (reflecting the poem by John Wood itself) reflects the whimsy of the imaginings of the protagonists over the lives of two people in an old photograph.

Jennifer Check and Warren Jones, who had shone in River of Horses, reunite for the cycle The Soul Fox (2013, revised 2017) to poems by a frequent collaborator of Laitman’s, David Mason. Laitman deliberately uses a female voice to narrate a male story of the end of a marriage brought about through lying and temptation, adding an extra layer. (Hearing Frauenliebe und -leben sung by a female has a somewhat similar effect, perhaps?) Of course it means that when the female temptress in “Sarong Song” is quoted, we do actually hear a female siren voice. Laitman’s setting is searing in a less-is-more sort of way. We hear the events, we watch with our internal eye, we feel pain. The setting of “Night Song” is particularly memorable; the piano’s high, repeated phrase is like an encrustation of starry pain. The piano contribution to “The Soul Fox,” the final poem, seems like a slowed–down, lachrymose version of that phrase.

Laitman herself is the poet for Short Songs for Edward, written for her grandchild Edward Milton Rosenblum in 2017. Each poem is a tiny sliver of joy (as long as one is fine with a song called “When you have to make a poo”; I am, at least). The gentle simplicity of “Sometimes you get a boo-boo” is lovely. Maureen McKay seems to have fun; and, continuing the idea of fun, the twofer closes with a cabaret song, to a poem by Dana Gioia (potentially the first of a series), You Leave Me Bent, written in 2016 and revised the following year. There is a verse and a chorus in this appetite-whetting offering; there is wit and a light touch, too.

Detailed notes are provided by the composer herself; texts are available online at Naxos’s website. Throughout, Laitman’s choice of poets speaks of an intellect and soul in perfect attunement. Purely in poetic terms, this is a splendid compendium. The recording (over a number of different venues and dates) is excellent throughout. Touchingly dedicated to the memory of the composer’s parents, this set is required listening for any lover of the art song. Colin Clarke

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