Though Lyric Fest often presents art song programs with contextual commentary (biographical or otherwise), the program dedicated to female poets performed twice over the weekend, at Bryn Mawr College and the Academy of Vocal Arts, featured only song texts read here and there. When poets are the subject, their work is their story.
The perfect example is Emily Dickinson, who obviously had an honored place in the concert. Her outer life was minimal; her inner life, manifested in her poems, was everything. Aaron Copland and Daron Hagen were among the composers who enshrined them, Copland building miniature musical monuments around them, Hagen amplifying them in discreet but highly intuitive ways that made the words live very much in the moment, following poet Alice Fulton's dictim: "Fiction is about what happens next; poetry is about what happens now."
Carrying the unwieldy title "Dear March- Come in! American Women Poets in Song," the concert wasn't really a gender study but a cross-section of American song. William Bolcom's freewheeling use of ragtime and spoken word perfectly suited Fulton's "How to Swing Those Obbligatos Around." John Musto brought a woozy cabaret element to Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Recuerdo," while Paul Bowles gave Gertrude Stein's free-associating "April Fool Baby" an appropriately rambling randomness.
It took current composers to liberate the poets from their own meter: Both Jake Heggie's setting of "Motherwit" by Charlene Baldridge and James Primosch's treatment of the Susan Scott Thompson poem "Waltzing the Spheres" had a kind of harmonic ambiguity that seemed to let the poems run exactly where they wanted to.
A number of songs were commissioned for the occasion (those by Hagen, Promosch, Benjamin C.S. Boyle, Michael Djupstrom, and Douglas Cuomo) though, among them, the most curious text choice was by Maurice Wright. He unearthed a short verse, "Hold my hands, Lover" by the almost unknown Virginia Robinson, an African American no older than 20 who sold her poems at a WPA office in West Virginia in 1930 and then apparently disappeared forever. Wright didn't quite tap into the unfiltered ecstasy of the poems and the vocal lines didn't feel comfortable. One hopes revisions are in the future.
Singing was excellent. Guests soprano Kiera Duffy and tenor Joseph Gaines were charismatic additions to ever-capable regulars baritone Randall Scarlata and mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, all enjoying inspired collaborations with pianist Laura Ward.