Jeanne Golan, Pianist
Cycles & Sequels
"Cycles & Sequels" is the concept that the Nessinger-Golan Duo developed for adding to the art song repertoire through an approach that embraces the new while honoring the cyclic treasures of the vocal-piano repertoire. It entails composers choosing texts and writing songs inspired by or in response to individual songs from a known song cycle, resulting in a new cycle to be paired with the established work.
“a substantial and adventurous undertaking, beautifully realized, and always thought provoking… The performances are exquisite.”
This is an extremely creative and literate production. Soprano Mary Nessinger and pianist Jeanne Golan took as “templates” two song cycles from the cusp of the 19th to 20th centuries, Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder, and then asked 10 contemporary composers to write songs that responded to each number in the original cycles. The results are stimulating, often engaging… Every composer obviously took up the challenge with seriousness and good humor. And many of the songs are musically attractive and/or memorable. I found David Del Tredici’s breathless nursery-rhyme setting of a meditation on infinity to be sweet, poignant, and deliberately over-the-top, as is usually the case in his work. Joe Kerr has by far the most “extreme” stylistic work, which is a very convincing evocation of a Gershwin brothers’ song, with lyrics that seem to have been written by a contemporary Brooklyn hipster. Jorge Martin goes overboard in another direction, with extravagant Latinisms. Lee Hyla sets Neruda within a spacious realm of flickering atonal gestures that are calming rather than expressionistic. The new “cycles” are distinctly postmodern in that they swing wildly from one voice/style/language to another, dependent on the profile of each composer. This may not create great coherence, but it also allows for surprise and creative friction. Beyond the composers’ response to the text, I don’t feel as strong an attempt to reinterpret Debussy’s or Berg’s actual music in the new pieces. Eleanor Sandresky’s Rimbaud setting evokes aspects of impressionist practice most evidently, but for my money, the real bull’s eye is Sebastian Currier’s setting of T. S. Eliot’s “The Nymphs Have Departed” in response to Debussy-Louÿs’s “Le tombeau des Naïades.” This piece not only suggests the death of mythologies in a modern age (referring to the same mythological being as the original), but the music is plaintive, chant-like, somber, almost archaic, in a way that seems a direct descendant of Debussy without quoting him.
While not as obviously connected, it does strike me that most of these pieces do reflect a certain connection to the previous fin de siècle, in that their language seems to mix aspects of tonal Romanticism with modernist chromatic expressionism. Cipullo, Moe, Del Tredici, and Martin tend more towards the former; Rothman, Weesner, and Hyla tend towards the latter. The lines aren’t hard and fast, though; there’s always blending between the elements, and some feel a little further afield in different ways (Sandresky, Kerr, and Currier, as noted above)…
The performances are exquisite. I’d first heard Nessinger in a Lee Hyla disc a few issues back, and was stunned by her theatrical instincts and risk taking. In this recital, her diction is flawless, and she can shift vocal color and delivery (including degree of vibrato) subtly or dramatically to fit the interpretive needs of each piece… Jeanne Golan is a superb partner in the project, and writes highly literate program notes to boot.
…this is a substantial and adventurous undertaking, beautifully realized, and always thought provoking. Robert Carl
The Duo's first "Cycles & Sequels" undertaking is Innocence Lost: The Berg-Debussy Project. It has ten of today's most compelling American composers from a variety of backgrounds writing songs in response to two visionary cycles from the cusp of the last century. Inspired by the Berg Seven Early Songs and Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, scores are coming in from Tom Cipullo, Sebastian Currier, David Del Tredici, Lee Hyla, Joe Kerr, Jorge Martin, Eric Moe, Eleanor Sandresky, Anna Weesner and Daniel Rothman.
Innocence Lost was released on April 1, 2009 by Albany Records. This is the Duo's debut album.
Innocence Lost: The Berg-Debussy Project is meant to present art song in an accessible way to general audiences using whatever format will best enrich their experience. The project also fosters new American music in a way that makes it about the power of the music and text because it is designed to belong with standard repertoire as well as allowing the standard repertoire to be heard in a fresh context.
This project has received support from the Amphion and Sparkplug Foundations, the Ditson Fund, the Group for Contemporary Music and Vassar College. Parnassus: Poetry in Review features this project in its 30th Anniversary Publication. Details at http://www.parnassuspoetry.com
Mary Nessinger, mezzo-soprano and Jeanne Golan have been collaborating for the past seven years. Championing the music of our times in addition to known and hidden gems of the last two centuries, they enjoy close working relationships with some of contemporary musics brightest and most inventive composers. Ms. Nessinger and Golan have performed in major concert halls throughout America and Europe as featured soloists with orchestras, chamber musicians, in recital and on CD. Their innovation in combining standard and new repertoire has been received with enthusiastic acclaim.
Ms. Nessinger and Golan's thematic programming allows the listener to hear music in a fresh context as they parallel unexpected musical realms. Equally at home discussing music as performing it, they enjoy engaging their audiences when appropriate with a few thoughts about the program they are about to experience.
Recent recitals include Collections & Recollections. Conceived as an homage, this diverse program weaves together songs, poetry, stories and piano music that would have had special significance for the pianist's father. It features selections that span from Russia to America, from romantic to contemporary, from art song to Yiddish Theatre and Broadway. Composers include Cipullo, Clarke, Ives, Tchaikowsky, Rachmaninoff, Berg, Ellstein (arranged by Ms. Golan) and Gershwin.
Of recent performances, The New York Times has praised singer Mary Nessinger for her "remarkable fluidity and beauty of tone," and described her interpretive skills as "a tour de force of characterization". The New Yorker has heralded "her exacting musicianship and quiet dignity (which) have made her a fixture of the New York scene."
In recital, Ms. Nessinger has graced such venues as Carnegie, Alice Tully and Avery Fisher Halls, the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C.; Jordan Hall and the Gardner Museum in Boston as well as Wigmore Hall in London and the Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie in Berlin. Always intrigued by the versatility that the singer's repertoire can afford, Ms. Nessinger obtained her BM cum laude, from Notre Dame. She then studied at the Eastman School with Seth McCoy and Jan DeGaetani, and in New York with Chloe Owen.
Ms. Nessinger has been featured with the Baltimore, Grand Rapids, Jacksonville and London Symphonies, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the newly formed Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Her collaborative work has found her performing with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, New Millennium Ensemble, the Hebrides Ensemble (Scotland), the Colorado, Pacifica, and Orion Quartets, and as a guest artist at Tanglewood and the Ravinia Festival. She has participated in the Santa Fe, Chamber Music Northwest, Marlboro, Music from Angel Fire, Aspen, and has toured under the auspices of "Musicians from Marlboro" and the International Musicians' Seminar in England.
Premiering pieces by Lee Hyla, John Harbison, Earl Kim and Bernard Rands she has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, CRI, New World, Naxos, Ondine, Mode, and Koch International Labels. Ms. Nessinger is on the voice faculty of Vassar College and Princeton University.
Mary Nessinger and Jeanne Golan sat down last September to figure out how they could give something back to the vocal-piano repertoire that has been so fulfilling for them. Typical of their "business" meetings, this one took place in the pianist's Upper west-side kitchen overlooking Broadway, over a pot of coffee and pastries from the local bakery. It would ultimately lead to an innovative programming concept they call Cycles & Sequels.
The Duo was basking in the glow of having just performed the Berg Seven Early Songs, a seminal work written at the cusp of the 20th c., heralding a new harmonic language while steeped in 19th c. luxuriousness. As they conversed, they found themselves drawn to the notion of honoring known works by providing them with new American companion pieces that would add to the repertoire and allow the known works to be heard in a fresh context. Avid proponents of contemporary music, both musicians discovered early in their careers that approaching standard repertoire as if it were new music gave them a unique understanding of the composer's mindset, whatever the era or style.
By morning's end, they had decided to use the Berg as their pilot cycle. Yet, how to commission its companion in such a way that would let the two sets be mutually supportive in spirit without creating unfair parallels between the old and new? The Duo made two key decisions: use a different composer for each song, and allow each composer complete freedom in choosing a text. The only stipulation would be that the composer respond to or be inspired by his or her assigned song.
The next stage was deciding on composers and who would be assigned which song. Conscious that this could be just the beginning of many such projects, the Duo wanted to insure this pilot project happen in a reasonable amount of time and include several compositional approaches and styles.
At the next meeting, this time at a local diner over eggs and toast, Nessinger and Golan each came with a sizeable list of composers whose work excited them. It occurred to them that adding Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis to the Berg would create a full program for recital and recording that celebrates the sound-worlds of the beginnings of both the 20th and 21st centuries. This would also allow ten composers to be commissioned rather than seven.
With attention to encompassing a range of styles from current pop and classical spectrums, ten composers were selected. As they then began to debate who would get what song, the idea of holding a lottery popped into their heads. They tore up strips of napkin, writing the composer's names on them and dropping them into the toast basket, and alternated picking names out of it. As serendipity would have it, with each new name selected, both realized that that was just the person they would have thought of for that song anyway.
When called, each composer was delighted to be asked to participate.
This left one more decision. What to call this concept? For the single Berg-Debussy Project, Innocence Lost seemed self-evident, as all of the texts incorporate a moment of new-found maturity or discovery of the human condition. (The women briefly entertained the pun "our cusp runneth over" admitting to their affinity to the transitions that brand-new centuries bring.)
Yet, hoping that this would be the first of many such pairings of old and new repertoire, the task of giving the larger concept an identity became more crucial. Occasional Star Trek fans, the duo joked about calling it Cycles- The Next Generation. Finally they settled on a name to match a project that reflected their feeling of responsibility to cut across cultural divides, to give audiences a fulfilling humane experience and to keep our vitally essential music tradition alive and growing. With that realization, Cycles & Sequels took full shape, both in concept and identity.