Faculty Recording: “Anxiety Attack”
Melanie Helton and Derek Polischuk visit the old and color it with the new.
Listeners might think that the two song cycles that soprano Melanie Helton and pianist Derek Polischuk paired on their new recording, Anxiety Attack, are oddly matched. But according to the artists, as they worked through the pieces they found that each, by itself and together, are profound expressions of the depth of the human spirit, albeit seen through the very different lenses of the 19th and 21st century.
Robert Schumann’s masterpiece Dichterliebe is a cornerstone of the 19th century romantic repertoire and has been sung and recorded by almost every famous singer since. Although traditionally sung by a man, it was originally dedicated to Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, a powerful German soprano famous for her characterizations (and for whom Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe- und Leben was written). As the cycle evolves, the role of the voice and the necessity for power becomes more evident. And even though the romantic object of the poet’s affections is grammatically female, it is more about the balance of power in a relationship, which both clearly Heine and Schumann feel leans toward the feminine partner.
Helton and Polischuk first performed three of Gabriel Kahane’s brilliant Craigslistlieder as part of their biannual concert of “bad music.” As they worked through the entire cycle, they discovered that beyond the settings of “missed connections” taken directly from Craigslist (an online marketplace for nearly anything), there was a poignant, profound expression of a human being who doesn’t quite fit into his own world. Kahane is the son of classical pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane, and it is obvious that he is steeped in the classical vocabulary. From his very fresh compositional voice one still hears echoes of Debussy, Messaien, Wagner, and yes, Schumann. Although some listeners may be taken aback at the very 21st century honesty about issues some consider private, there is never anything vulgar or prurient about this character’s journey.
As Schumann’s poet is confronted by a painting of the Virgin Mary in the great Dom in Cologne, Kahane’s average guy sees the messenger of God on the A train, eating M&Ms. Both protagonists admit to their faults, whether it be bitterness or neuroses. Yet, finally, at the end, our heart is perhaps broken, just a little bit, by their journeys.
Helton and Polischuk say that this program has reinforced to them that as listeners and performers move on into new music, they continue to be colored by their experience of the old. At the same time, the new paints the old in colors not found before.