Faculty Tuesday: ‘Odysseys from Nicaragua to New Hampshire’

Contemporary song cycles by Gabriela Lena Frank and Herschel Garfein will be performed Dec. 7

By Izzy Fincher Dec. 3 at 1:55 p.m.

The genre of song cycles, popularized by Schubert in the early 19th century, is traditionally associated with tenor and piano. However, there is also a rich history of baritone song cycles by classical and contemporary composers, including Beethoven, Verdi, Ravel, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Benjamin Britten. 

Baritone Andrew Garland

At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7, baritone Andrew Garland will perform two contemporary song cycles for “Odysseys from Nicaragua to New Hampshire,” a concert for CU’s “Faculty Tuesdays” series. The program features Gabriela Lena Frank’s Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce (Songs of Cifar and the sweet sea) with pianist Jeremy Reger and the baritone premiere of Herschel Garfein’s Mortality Mansions with pianist David Korevaar. 

Frank, a Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer, is known for her multicultural influences, combining Latin American musical styles with Western classical music. This reflects her diverse background, growing up in California with parents of mixed Peruvian/Chinese and Lithuanian/Jewish ancestry, as well her creative travels throughout Latin America. 

Her song cycle Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce is an odyssey from Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America. Set to poems by Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra, it tells the story of the harp-playing sailor Cifar, who travels around Lake Nicaragua.

Gabriela Lena Frank

“The poetry is very simple and direct, yet deep and meaningful,” Garland says. “There’s definitely magic realism in there.”

The eight-song cycle lasting 30 minutes is a work in progress, which Frank plans to expand to 70 minutes with soprano and then orchestrate with guitars and marimbas. In 2007, Garland premiered the last two songs in the cycle, “Eufemia” and “En la Vela del Angelito”(In the little angel’s candle). Fourteen years later for his Faculty Tuesday performance, he wanted to perform the rest of the cycle, which he describes as cohesive and compelling even in its incomplete form.

“Within the arc of these eight songs, you get a great variety of magic, solemnity, comedy, mystery, intensity and darkness,” Garland says. “They are very powerful and memorable.” 

This will be followed by the baritone premiere of Mortality Mansions by Garfein, a Grammy-Award winning composer, librettist and stage director. Mortality Mansions, originally written for tenor, is set to selected poems that span former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall’s 60-year career. Drawing from his personal experiences with the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, Hall depicts a moving portrait of love, sexuality and loss in later life.

Herschel Garfein

“When I first read Hall’s poetry, I was amazed,” Garfein recalls. “I was immediately attracted to these very vivid poems about life and especially about sexuality over the age of 60, which is something no one talks about. He’s both very frank and very moving about it.”

“These poems are so insightful and illuminating, but he doesn’t show off or lecture the reader,” Garfein continues. “That’s extremely important in great art.”

To complement Hall’s writing style, Garfein chose to keep the vocal lines melodic and mostly tonal. This is accompanied by dissonant harmonies and virtuosity of the piano part, a contrast inspired by Schubert’s lieder style. 

Garfein selected the title, Mortality Mansions, from the second poem, “When I Was Young,” a contemplation of how youthful lust has evolved with aging. The poem ends with the line, “Let us pull back the blanket, slide off our bluejeans,// assume familiar positions,// and celebrate lust in mortality mansions.” 

Given the long time span of the collection, each poem feels like a vignette of love and life, cohesive yet independent. The work opens with “When the Young Husband,” depicting an ill-fated affair between the young husband and his wife’s friend, accompanied by an energetic motif. 

“In the first song, what needs to come across is the recklessness and brazen disregard or the desire for chaos and downfall, that Don Giovanni-esque, bring-it-on attitude,” Garland says. 

Then the focus shifts to bittersweet recollections from Hall’s relationship with Kenyon, beginning with “When I Was Young.” This flow is briefly interrupted by “Woolworth’s,” an ode to the iconic American five-and-dime business that closed in 1997, and “The Green Shelf,” in which a neighbor is killed in a lawnmower accident, a disturbing scene accompanied by an agitated piano part in an ominously low register. 

Over the next six poems, Hall shares happy memories of making love and cooking together with Kenyon, before shifting to painful reflections on endings and death. The cycle ends with “Otherwise” by Kenyon, a poem about enjoying the beauty of small moments in daily life, while acknowledging the ephemeral nature of existence.  

Mortality Mansions evokes both the grandeur and the fatality (of human existence),” Garfein says. “It’s a call to enjoy life while you can because it’s not going to last forever. Love and sexuality are a hedge against mortality, against death.”

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“Odysseys from Nicaragua to New Hampshire”
Andrew Garland, tenor

  • Gabriela Lena Frank: Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce
    with Jeremy Reger, piano
  • Herschel Garfein: Mortality Mansions
    with David Korevaar, piano

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7
Grusin Recital Hall, CU Imig Music Building
Admission free 
Livestream available from CU Presents

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