Sonus debuts in concert of Civil War-tinged Americana


Sonus is a newly founded trio of musicians -- soprano, flutist and pianist -- that gave its first concert last night at the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. It made its debut with a superb calling card -- a song cycle by the young American composer, Daron Aric Hagen, that was commissioned by the ensemble.

Hagen's cycle is called "Dear Youth." It is a setting of letters and diary entries by American women during the Civil War. These are often heartbreaking texts and Hagen is a composer who -- like one of his teachers, Ned Rorem -- has a superb ear for catching the inflections of speech and supporting them sensitively with music. This was a real piece of chamber music -- the flute writing was impressive -- not merely songs with accompaniment. Yet as any true song cycle must be, it was dominated by the singer with bursts of moving melody and it involved the listener with the the individual narrative voices of the songs.

The composer -- who already has had some major successes, including a Friedheim Prize and forth coming performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra -- betrayed his youth (he is not yet 31) by only one misstep. In the middle of "Dear Youth," he places a comic song that is textually and musically out of place and that fractures the sustained lyricism that is otherwise so masterly.

The singer was Robin Bourguignon, a fresh-faced young woman with a beautiful voice, a refined but heart-piercing style and a winning manner. She was just as impressive earlier in two Stephen Foster songs and, after intermission, in songs by Aaron Copland, Vincent Persichetti and Charles Ives. She will be even better when she learns to phrase a bit more freely and to give more variety and color to individual words.

Bourguignon was the best thing about Sonus, whose other members are the capable pianist, Randall Sheets, and the flutist, Billie Witte, who often overblew her instrument and was occasionally off pitch. Sonus must learn how to construct programs more interestingly. The concert was ostensibly unified Civil War themes; in actuality, it was -- except for the commissioned work -- little more than a grab bag of Americana.

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