Sperry's Secrets Revealed

For New Music Connoisseur, Vol. 12, No. 1, "The Scoreboard"

by Barry Drogin

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

American Encores, Paul Sperry, Editor. Oxford Vocal Music ISBN 0-19-386328-6.

Recently awarded NMC's New Music Champion award, Paul Sperry's accomplishments should not have to be repeated here. Oxford University Press's publication of American Encores, a collection for solo voice and piano, merits attention solely on the basis of its being edited by Mr. Sperry.

Mr. Sperry has not only performed but actually recorded, for Albany Records, all but one of the seventeen songs in this collection, so his personal connection to the material is immediate. The Preface and Suggestions for Performance that accompany the scores are written with a kindly and enthusiastic "I" that should be familiar to anyone who has attended a Sperry recital or class.

The title of this collection, however, is to be taken literally. Mr. Sperry assumes not only the continued existence and popularity of the song recital, but of song recitals devoted to American music. This collection, then, is for singers looking for that bon mot, the expected encore at the end of the program, those songs not listed in the program, with no program notes, that a singer uses to show off with, reward an audience with, send an audience off into the night with, please the audience with.

As could be expected, a number of these pieces are quite funny, over half. Mr. Sperry also indulges his personal fondness for the waltz - he counts four, but there are actually seven in various tempi of three-quarter time. As he notes, encores can be slow and beautiful as well, so he provides that, too. It is a diverse collection, with both difficult and easy pieces; the singer even has access to a recording, as previously noted.

I must note, however, that this collection, as a purchase, is singular in purpose and in nature. It is not meant to be illustrative or representative of American song literature. Except for particulars of performance, there is nothing written about the composers, the source texts, how the pieces came to be written, even when - in many cases, there is a misleading 2002 copyright notice on "this edition," with no indication of the original date of composition. In other words, this collection is only of interest to performing American song recitalists, and that is a shame, for with little effort, the market for such a publication could have been easily expanded.

That said, perhaps the charm of an encore is in its secrecy, and Mr. Sperry has found some gems. I have a particular fondness for the comic song, and this collection contrains many interesting demonstrations of what makes a song humorous. Start with Christopher Berg, apparently a master in the genre, whose setting of a Frank O'Hara "Poem" perfectly captures the cultural clash that Mr. O'Hara himself was aiming for. Except for a phrase or two where Mr. O'Hara asserts his poetic voice, Mr. Berg accomplishes something rare, giving the impression that the poem is inseparable from and was actually written as a lyric for the song.

Henry Cowell accomplishes something similar in "Who Wrote This Fiendish 'Rite of Spring?'", using Slonimsky's words and Stravinsky's harmonies in a hilarious mock homage. There is no such hurdle before Maury Yeston's "I Don't Wanna Rock and Roll," wherein Yeston uses his skills as a songwriter to construct the perfect conflict between text and subtext, paired with some deliciously funny rhymes.

Other comic songs in this collection use drollery, or a punch line, to accomplish their purposes. Any might provide just the right relief of tension as an encore to a serious song recital. Beware of the deceptively difficult piano part in Chanler's "I Rise When You Enter" - kudos to the singer who can convince his accompanist to learn it.

Moving on, I found the most beautiful song in the collection to be Warren Michel Swenson's arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Why No One to Love?" Since Foster typically wrote songs for sale to the home market, this begs the question of whether the original arrangement is not as beautiful. In the context of a song recital encore, the listener will not know that the arrangement is not authentic, and such ignorance will be bliss.

I am not so taken by Mr. Swenson's own "The Lepidoptera Waltz," which contains the unfortunate opening line, "The most wonderful tune in the world...", setting the bar too high. Also, such a waltz does not sound "American." There is a similar problem with Robert Beaser's "Quicksilver," H.H.A. Beach's "Ariette" and William Billings' "David's Lamentation." Virgil Thomson's "Take, O, Take Those Lips Away" has the opposite problem, Thomson's American sound clashing with Shakespeare's language. Out of the context of a production set in a different time period, it comes off as an oddity.

But a song recital is an intimate expression of a singer's personality and capabilities, as an actor, as a vocalist, as a musician, as a human being. My reactions to the encores in this collection, those I have mentioned and those I have not, are personal, and this collection as a whole has such a variety of easy, difficult, fast, slow, funny and serious encores, that any professional song recitalist with an interest in American song would find it an invaluable resource over a lifetime of performing..

Thank you, Mr. Sperry. Encore!

Back to guide - Next item in guide - Back to index - Next item in index

A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007 rights@notnicemusic.com

Last Updated: August 4, 2007