New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini once commented that there was an eerie similarity to the songs of contemporary American composers. In his learned estimation, only two things — text choice and the way a composer illuminated the voice of a specific singer — distinguished one from the other.
American composer Evan Mack — a Skidmore College professor who’s gaining recognition — has released The Travelled Road on Ravello Records, a thoughtful collection of songs interpreted by mezzo-soprano Megan Marino and pianist John Arida.
The release of this album, recorded at Arthur Zankel Music Center in Saratoga Springs, New York, in one day, showcases the importance of the marriage between singer and song.
Marino is in residence at The Atlanta Opera as a member of the Company Players, 12 internationally acclaimed opera singers who live in the Southeast. Marino sang Beppe in the opera’s Big Tent Series’ pandemic-friendly production of Pagliacci last fall and recently sang the lead role in Carmen. She’s also sung supporting roles in much more prestigious venues — the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Santa Fe, where she apprenticed for two seasons.
Marino’s stature is diminutive onstage. She looks nothing like the stereotypical opera diva who brandishes blonde braids and horns. Within the opera world, Marino plays a wood nymph, the best friend or a lovesick pageboy. Hers is a voice befitting the intimacy of art song, surprisingly lush in the low and middle registers. Her authentic commitment is to get the text just right.
Each piece on this disc, save one, were composed for singers other than Marino, so Mack transposed and recontoured things here and there to better suit her. Only Mack’s setting of the Carl Sandburg poem “The Road and the End” was composed with Marino’s sound in mind.
Marino’s text rendering is sincere within it; Mack smartly gives her several unaccompanied moments in which she shines, her elocution precise. Arida assumes a supportive role on the piano, yet he’s essential in creating an underlying pulse and shifting ambiences throughout the song. Oddly, the “The Road and the End” takes on a Southern gospel flavor at its climax, switching character and requiring Marino to push her voice to its limits.
The first track of the CD, “A Little More Perfect,” premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival and is most-often performed by baritones (including Marino’s husband, Michael Mayes). It’s an excerpt of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Obergefell v. Hodges majority decision concerning marriage equality.
The song begins with a sparse and linear piano motive that recurs throughout the piece, a technique that Mack uses frequently. The message is provocative and relevant within our time, and Marino delivers a profound vocalism that summons the transformational significance of this moment in our history. Cellist James Platte joins in with a dramatic, if not somewhat predictable, cello line, expanding the harmonic and rhythmic texture little by little. Sadly, Platte’s performance is mediocre at best and detracts from the whole.
The Travelled Road is deftly curated, one selection flowing naturally into the next. Mack does have a penchant for choosing meaningful texts for his vignettes, both poetic and prose, and never sacrifices the natural stress of the language for the sake of musical artifice. His song group “Reflections on Sister Dorothy” is particularly poignant, a collection of diary entries written by a nun martyred in the Amazon in 2005.
The cycle “Preach Sister, Preach” is a lighthearted collection of 14 miniature songs featuring the pithy quotations of legendary women ranging from Lucille Ball to Simone de Beauvoir. There’s also a quiet song group called “The Secret Ocean” about parenthood that features the poetry of Mark Jarman in which Mack creates a sometimes comforting, sometimes unsettling mood.
Whether Mack has offered something new within The Travelled Road is up to the listener. What’s clear in hearing this anthology of songs is that the text is paramount to him and his melodies are made more compelling by Marino’s in-depth expression.