American soprano Katherine Jolly has graced many opera stages over the course of her budding career. After winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finale in 2006, she went on to perform with the New York City Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Florida Grand Opera, among others. In concert repertoire, Jolly has taken the route of many lyric sopranos, specializing in the repertoire of Bach, Handel and Mozart. On her debut recording Preach Sister Preach, however, she selected three contemporary works by young American composers. The project was undertaken while Jolly was on the voice faculty at the IU Jacobs School of Music (JSOM), and was recorded on the stage of Auer Hall in 2018 and early 2019 by audio engineer D. James Tagg, who is also on the JSOM faculty.
The album opens with Emily’s House, a work based on the poems of Emily Dickenson by African American composer Evan Williams, currently Assistant Professor of Music at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. The texts for the ten short movements were selected with the poet herself in mind, and reflect her reclusive nature and sheltered life in Amherst, MA. The bulk of these verses look to nature for inspiration, from the beauty of Dickenson’s gardens to the bucolic New England landscape. Jolly assumes the voice of the poet, singing these beautifully set poems from Dickenson’s perspective while pianist Emily Yap Chua provides the accompaniment. Some of the movements are more lighthearted, such as the “The Bee is not afraid of me,” with voice and piano navigating rapid flurries before the calming influence of the brook and forest prevail. The bee, however, gets the last word with a final flourish of the piano. Though less than 90 seconds in length, this delightful piece is a highlight, performed with convincing aplomb by both artists. Jolly’s voice easily navigates the complex harmonies of “These are the days when Birds come back,” one of the more substantial movements, and sails through “Wild Nights-Wild Nights!” which closes with a dramatic piano glissando following the declaration, “I but moor – tonight – in Thee!” While many of the verses are fairly abstract, “Glee! The great storm is over!” tells the story of a shipwreck leaving forty dead and “spinning upon the shoals.” Jolly and Chua plumb the emotional depths of the tragedy, ranging from strident exclamations of alarm to more subtle nuances as “a silence suffuses the story.” Williams has composed a remarkable work that will surely receive many performances in the future, either in whole or part since each movement can easily stand alone.
Leaving the 19th century for the present, Katherine Bodor’s timely work Absent an Adjustment warns of the perils of climate change and is the composer’s reaction to the article “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells, published in New York Magazine on July 9, 2017. Adapting portions of the article for the song text, Bodor has created a very impactful work that opens with the warning, “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” A chamber work set for strings, clarinet and soprano, Jolly is joined by graduate students at the JSOM including Joshua Harper (conductor), Christa Cole (violin), Samantha Johnson-Helms (clarinet), Rachel Mossburg (viola) and Per Bjørkling double bass. Bodor’s composition is as complex as the topic, presenting many challenges for the ensemble. Jolly easily negotiates the rapid arpeggios and leaps as she issues a strident warning, backed by an excellent performance from the musicians. As the work concludes, a sense of doom settles in, evoked by the mournful lines of the clarinet and Jolly’s softly pleading tone. Bodor, who is also a JSOM graduate student, already exhibits a great deal of maturity and creativity in her writing, and will no doubt achieve success with Absent an Adjustment as well as future works.
Concluding the album is Evan Mack’s song cycle, Preach Sister, Preach, inspired by the first women’s march and quotes of famous women about women. Each of the 14 movements honor a different woman, and often the selected quotes used as song texts are a single sentence. Mack effectively switches the mood and style of each movement to fit the personalities of the women and their words of wisdom. For example, “Mae West” is full of bluesy swagger, “Gilda Radner” features a short burst of scat evoking laughter, “Leslie Jones” uses a quote about dating and receives a musical theater treatment, “Lucille Ball” is set to a lively waltz, “Tina Fey” is more cabaret, and the concluding movement “Ellen DeGeneres” is jazzy yet contemplative, then goes out with a huge burst of sound. Jolly is again accompanied by Emily Yap Chua on piano, and the two move through these various styles with ease. Jolly’s excellent diction allows listeners to fully appreciate the quotes, bringing each woman to life. Mack has given us a delightful work that concludes the album on an upbeat note.
Preach Sister Preach is a major accomplishment for Jolly, the musicians, and especially the composers of these new works. The accompanying liner notes include song texts as well as biographies, and the sound is well balanced and crystal clear. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss