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Written by Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold   
Friday, 30 January 2015

The Poetry of Song: Ida Faiella

“I have always been interested in poetry because my father was a poet and, growing up in an Italian-American household, I would listen to him read D’Annunzio to us before dinner.”

Soprano Ida Faiella is talking about her latest recording project as part of the chamber group of which she is artistic director, L’Ensemble. Poetry into Song features two contemporary song cycle premieres and a chamber work for piano and violin, and it is the most recent in a long series of daring programs which Faiella and L’Ensemble have performed since the latter’s inception in 1973.

Born Aida Maria—a name she later elided to Ida—to an immigrant family that settled in Bridgeport, CT, music was an integral part of Faiella’s upbringing. “My mother was a singer. She had grown up in Italy and attended a convent school, however, so the only singing she did was in church. But there was always music in our household. I discovered I had a voice very early on, and I started doing a radio show when I was 11.” That first broadcast gig however, was tap dancing—“On the radio! Can you imagine?” she laughs, though she soon got plenty of other opportunities to sing in public.

Her father, who was a committed socialist, would bring his talented daughter with him to the Duke of Abruzzi Society and have her sing “these 1940s communist songs. That was where I first saw that music could be a social force.” Then there was the ritual of the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan opera broadcasts. “My mother was very knowledgeable about opera, though she only got to go to the Met once when Antonio Pappano, whose family came from the same town in the Abruzzi, made his conducting debut and a group of compatriots chartered a bus to hear his Lohengrin.”

Faiella’s early vocal idols were an indicator of the eclectic taste in music she would come to cultivate and the breadth of style and repertoire she embraced in her career. “I admired Billie Holiday and Maria Callas,” she confides, “and I still keep their photographs on my piano at home in Yonkers to this day. It was their way with words. They were both such expressive singers who could make lyrics or poems or a libretto so very real and human.”

Faiella, herself, has sung everything from jazz (performing as a teenager with big bands such as Larry Elgart) to opera, art song, vocal chamber music, and musical theater. She was an opera major at Hartt College of Music, though, to the consternation of her voice teacher, she often worked in jazz clubs with the likes of bassist Ron McClure and drummer Paul Motian. Explaining the rationale which has always governed her performance choices, she declares: “The chords don’t make the validity of the piece. Were it not for Debussy or Ravel, there wouldn’t be any jazz. I gravitate to music I think is good and that I love. I have only one rule, and that is not to sing anything I don’t like. And, of course, when you have your own group,” she concedes, “you can do that.”

Faiella was teaching at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan when the inspiration to create L’Ensemble came to her. “My teacher Adele Addison, who was known for performing unusual repertoire, told me that if I wanted to sing art song, vocal chamber pieces, and contemporary works, I had to realize there was not a huge demand for that repertoire. I would have to create an audience for the music.” And so that is exactly what Faiella did! She was teaching music appreciation and history to her students, and she enlivened the course by arranging a few concerts at the school with some of her New York instrumentalist colleagues. “My course and the concerts became so popular that we finally decided to open the performances to the public.”

And so L’Ensemble was born. Faiella joined forces with several other musicians, among them cellist Julian Fifer, who went on to found Orpheus, and conductor Michael Feldman, who began the St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra. Over the years the ensemble came to include pianists Charles Abromovic and Lincoln Mayorga, cellists Semyon Fridman and Jesse Levy, violinists Dale Stuckenbruck and Barry Finclair (Finclair and Faiella enjoyed a long and happy marriage until his death in 2012). “The goal of the group has always been to stretch the definition of chamber music,” Faiella states, and L’Ensemble has played everything from the classics to jazz, cabaret, and contemporary compositions, many of which the group has commissioned.

“I love the idea of working with living composers,” Faiella says. “You are there from the beginning of the creative process. You get to see the pieces develop. It’s wonderful to be the first person to sing or play a new work. Even as the re-creator, which the performer is, it is thrilling to find your way through a new composition. After all, it is the music of the time in which we live.”

Following her mentor’s original advice, Faiella has proved astute in creating an audience for L’Ensemble’s work. Her various teaching and artist-in-residence posts (which have included Vermont’s Bennington College, where the group is beginning its second season at the Oldcastle Theatre) throughout her career have been helpful in that process, and she has been creative in her strategies. “Teaching has enabled us to reach out to new audiences in so many places. We have partnered with libraries, schools, and civic groups. For example, I still host two radio shows in Bennington: Music Makers and Monday Morning Music , which allow me to introduce artists and works.”

Many of Faiella’s most original projects have been thematically programmed. Beginning almost 20 years ago, she put together an all-women program of composers and performers. The idea had once again grown out of a course she was teaching at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY, on women composers. Faiella programmed Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, and Amy Beach, and then segued into modern composers such as Victoria Bond and Heidi Jacob. She recalls how difficult it was to find some of this music. “I wanted to do some Amy Beach songs, and I heard of a pianist in Boston who had performed some of this music, but it wasn’t published. She met me and handed me the music manuscripts personally. It made me feel we were doing something illicit,” she chuckles. “But, I do think the public’s understanding of women composers has grown substantially over the last two decades, and I feel that we are now at a point where we treat these musicians—who happen to be women—as composers first. It is a question of educating the audience.”

The same passion for innovative programming has led Faiella to her most recent CD, Poetry into Song , which is part of a larger project that has been evolving over the years and has included performances and recordings of Emily Dickinson poetry set by Copland and others, as well as commissions to Victoria Bond to set Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses and to George Calusdian to set verses by William Bronk.

In this most recent release, L’Ensemble performs two recent song cycles. The first, Frozen Lake , is by Allen Shawn, who sets six songs by Robert Frost interspersed with two interludes for violin and piano. Faiella is the soprano soloist, Shawn is the pianist, and Barry Finclair the violinist. Shawn is also represented on the recording by his 1996 instrumental composition Romances for piano and violin, in which the composer plays piano and Finclair, in his last recording, tackles the fiercely difficult and moving violin part.

“I had taught with Allen [Shawn] for 10 years,” Faiella recounts, “and am a big fan of his work. I suggested Frost, and he chose the poems. They are rather bleak ones, but I like that they negate the image of Frost as Santa Claus.” Faiella tells how they had performed the cycle a number of times in a program which supplemented the musical performance with a narrator, who read the poems, and Shawn, who discussed the music. “By the time the audience got to hear the music, they had some background that was helpful,” Faiella says.

Similarly, the idea for the third piece on the recording, Beginning Again , composed by Haverford College professor Heidi Jacob in 2009 to poems by Dominican-American poet Julia Alvarez, came about through a serendipitous meeting. “I was talking to Ruth Stevenson, who was on the faculty of Union College in Schenectady, and she told me she knew Alvarez. They had met earlier when Ruth was teaching high school and Alvarez had first come to this country, and they had maintained a friendship over the years. Ruth introduced me, and I was very taken with Julia’s writing. She talks a great deal about the immigrant experience, and that reminds me of my own parents.”

Faiella then approached Heidi Jacob with the commission. “To my delight, Heidi said she knew and loved Alvarez’s work. She had read In the Time of the Butterflies and she was excited about setting these four poems. We premiered it at Bryn Mawr with Alvarez reading her poems and L’Ensemble performing the piece afterwards. When you hear a vocal chamber work for the first time, it may be hard to get all of the poetry. So having the poet read the lines first is very powerful. Then you hear the music, which is a separate entity in its own right. I think these three pieces are important additions to the vocal and chamber repertoire,” Faiella continues, “and I hope other groups will pick them up.”

Asked what other projects Faiella is incubating, she talks about her interest in creating some musical programs which incorporate visual elements as well as poetry. “We have produced opera,” she explains. “We did an opera by Vivian Fine, Women in the Garden , about an imaginary meeting between Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, and Isadora Duncan (whom I played), and we produced the early Gershwin piece Blue Monday as well as a staged version of L’histoire du soldat . Now I would like to explore using visual effects such as projections with the music. I am looking at Kurt Weill’s and Hanns Eisler’s settings of Bertolt Brecht, which could be enhanced with historic photographs and footage. It could be a very powerful political-artistic experience.” And then, as if this is not an ambitious enough new concept, she adds: “As we rehearse for our concerts this year, I am sure lots of new ideas will come to me!”

Ever new and fresh and forward-looking! This is how Ida Faiella has defined her career and that of L’Ensemble: entertaining audiences, to be sure, but also embracing innovation, educating listeners, and introducing audiences to the endless and enriching intersections among music poetry, and art.

H. JACOB Beginning Again. 1 SHAWN Frozen Lake. 2 Romances 3 1,2 Ida Faiella (sop); 1 Charles Abramovic, 2,3 Allen Shawn (pn); Barry Finclair (vn) L’ENSEMBLE no catalog number (56:49)

Ida Faiella, soprano and artistic director of the chamber group L’Ensemble, has always been passionate about words and about contemporary music, and this new release, Poetry into Song, reflects both these interests. It is part of L’Ensemble’s ongoing romance with commissioning new vocal and chamber works and showcasing American poets and composers. The album contains two new song cycles and one composition for piano and violin, and it makes a strong case for having each of these works enter the standard performance repertoire.

Composer-pianist Allen Shawn contributes the first two selections. Frozen Lake, his 1995 six-song cycle punctuated by two piano-violin interludes, is a meditation on the poetry of Robert Frost. In this case Shawn has chosen some bleak, wintry poems and set them in stark, modern lines reminiscent of Schoenberg, Berg, and occasionally Ives—part syncopated, part dissonant, mostly dark and ominous, but wonderfully evocative of the loneliness and alienation of the landscape. Faiella uses her clear diction and resonant lower register to excellent effect, and she is fearless in the Sprechgesang; Barry Finclair draws from the violin the ominous soulfulness of the work, while Shawn partners expertly on the piano.

Romances , Shawn’s composition for violin and piano, serves as a marker between vocal works as well as an emotional anchor to the recording. Composed by Shawn at Yadoo in 1996, but only recorded in 2012 by the composer and Barry Finclair just months before the latter’s death, it is a special testament to the violinist’s extraordinary artistry. The three sections progress from the youthful longing of the first, to the rapid sense of adventure and discord evoked by the second, to the quiet, intimate searching and ultimate resignation of the third segment. His tone firm and secure, Finclair shapes the long legato, conjures up the necessary melancholy, scales the high notes with ease, and masters the nuanced palette of the work with expressive virtuosity. Between these two fine artists, Romances becomes a dialogue between doubt and hope, resolved in a quiet transcendence.

Beginning Again , the final work on the program, is Heidi Jacob’s 2009 setting of four texts by Domincan-American poet Julia Alvarez, who writes persuasively and poignantly of her immigrant experience. Faiella delivers the poems with warmth and understanding as well as with great respect for the text and for their mood shifts, while Charles Abramovic provides sensitive piano accompaniment, and Barry Finclair delivers subtle emotional underscoring on the violin.

The sound on the disc is well balanced and intimate with the voice forwardly placed, and the accompanying booklet is helpful in its artist biographies and commentary on the works. The only texts provided, however, are Alvarez’s—no doubt because they are less familiar than Frost’s, though one might wish space would have allowed for those poems to be printed as well.

Nonetheless, this is an adventurous recording full of rewards for those willing to take the journey it offers. Faiella and L’Ensemble merit praise for their consistent, intelligent, innovative championing of contemporary music and song. Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Last Updated ( Saturday, 31 January 2015 )
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