The Mount Vernon United Methodist Church heard a debut doubleheader last night, the world premiere of "Dear Youth", an eight-song chamber piece composed by 29-year-old American composer Daron Aric Hagen, and the first public outing of a new trio, Sonus.
But it was a Peabody Institute soprano, Robin Bourguignon, who gave an indelible edge to both debuts. She sang the Civil War-based song cycle, and seven other songs with purity of tone, sophisticated phrasing and proper crescendos and diminuendos. Her singing had the sincerity of a hymnal.
The soprano's spirit was evident from her barnyard sounds in Aaron Copland's "I Bought Me a Cat" to the spunk of a Civil War wife caught up in the war, a wife such as Ann Smith to her soldier husband, "At least I hope they will be able to do as will cause the least bloodshed."
The words that Civil War buff Hagen picked out from real writings are strong enough alone. But with her crystal clear diction and his music, Bourguignon turned them into songs of truth for the 50 listeners. One minor caveat was that the soprano's voice was more at home in pews near the front than the rear.
Other trio members also playing energetically in the premiere were pianist Randall K. Sheets, music director at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Glen Burnie, and flutist L. Billie Witte, a freelance musician. Sonus commissioned "Dear Youth" last fall and the composer felt the 15-minute piece gained "added relevancy" as America prepared for the Persian Gulf War.
At the end, the New York composer waved his thanks from the audience. He is very active, writing an opera on Frank Lloyd Wright, seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra premiere his Symphony No. 1 in April and playing his own Piano Concerto in its debut next month.
"Dear Youth" is a good small piece of lyrical music. Its harmonies are simple and attractive and not unchallenging to play or hear. Its eight songs are mixed between arias and recitatives, performed by different combinations of trio, flute (or piccolo) and soprano or solo soprano. The music is melancholy in seven songs but light-hearted and lightly scored in one, "The Trouble with Tom," making that one seem like jazz in a dirge.
The unusual 90-minute program was 19th and 20th Century parlor and concert hall Americana. It led off with a fancy piano version of Dixie, played brightly by Sheets, followed by seven Stephen Foster melodies, before "Dear Youth."
Witte and Sheets later played Copland's "Duo for Flute and Piano" and Witte succeeded, but not completely, in shaping some pleasant, cleanly cut flute passages. Persichetti and Ives songs ended the evening. Sonus (from "sound" in Latin) repeats the program March 19 in Washington and April 23 in Philadelphia. Other concerts are planned in May.