Attending the October 1 concert at Boston Court in Pasadena, it was a pleasure to hear Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann and pianist Tali Tadmor as they worked their way through an intimate collection of songs, with poetic friends in tow. “Hila Plitmann and Red Hen Press” was an infectious mix of art song and spoken word, and paired an early 21st-century song cycle by David Del Tredici with brand-new one by Mark Abel, spanning this diva’s recording career in just two sets: one of her first releases, and her most recent. In between were two sets of very personal poetry readings by Red Hen‘s own Laurel Ann Bogen and Brendan Constantine, making for a genuinely engaging evening.
The program began with excerpts from Del Tredici’s Miz Inez Sez, setting texts by Colette Inez. The work is dedicated to Plitmann, and was performed and later recorded with the composer at the piano, and included on his 2001 Secret Music release. Del Tredici’s pianistic background shows in the piece, often giving the piano its own collaborative character, rather than sitting in the shadows as mere accompaniment. Tadmor, of course, is fully up to the task, handling every dramatic shift with sure power, matching the vocal energy every step of the way, as a full partner in the enterprise. The composer samples and riffs on familiar tunes as deftly as a hip-hop emcee, but uses those borrowed snippets without completely stepping into parody. The songs left us with a pleasant sensation of being slightly rattled, shaken up, just as good songs should.
After readings by the two poets came the world premiere of The Palm Trees are Restless, a very L.A.-centric song cycle by Mark Abel, with texts by Red Hen chief Kate Gale, both in attendance. These visions of our landscape are evocative and surprising, laying bare emotions not usually associated with the polite classical salon. While the poems lean heavily on iconic images of Los Angeles, they are not merely strung-together litanies of sunshine, palm trees, cool cars, thin bodies and blondness. These outwardly identifiable facets are veils to the parts of being an Angeleno that must be lived in order to be fully felt: particularly the striving, the frustration, and the fear of being invisible that are so palpable to many residents of this otherwise beautiful place. Abel’s music places the emphasis firmly on storytelling, and he uses the piano more as landscape and scene-setting, keeping the voice center stage. But those stories are rich and tactile, with music that delivers. This set would prove a significant vocal and dramatic challenge to most performers, however, requiring the artistic prowess of performers like these to make these stories truly speak. The songs are part of Abel’s new release on Delos Records.
From the start, Hila Plitmann was a study in purposeful, compelling articulation, with extraordinary vocal modulation and control over dynamics and timbre. The fractured floridity of the cha-cha toward the end of the third song in the Del Tredici set, “Good News! Nilda is Back”, would be daunting for most, but she works through her paces without a hitch. These gifts for eclecticism and spot-on interpretation are her hallmark, and give her artistic palette many more colors than most good performers. She truly performs with her entire body: she knows how to use the space, moving about the stage with no hesitation or obvious evidence of choreography, but she also knows the power of stillness, and when to use it. With all the spark of a Broadway diva, her personality is in motion, even when she’s standing in one spot. Plitmann’s vocal technique is unusual as well, as her voice is powerful and sparkling, but she is not afraid to use all parts of her instrument, even those less “pure”. This fearlessness is riveting. As the first piece started, she stood, fists clenched, with what seemed like tension in her shoulders, arms, and hips. But the ensuing high pianissimos that start from nowhere and many moments of obvious facility with the twists and turns in the vocal line make it clear that her voice is as free as it needs to be: she sounds great, but her ability to express complex emotion through sheer physicality also makes her one of the most unique vocalists I’ve ever watched.
Tali Tadmor is a vocalist’s dream, a pianist with full command of the instrument and the art form. With the chops to tackle anything you in put in front of her, plus the sensitivity not only to interpret the music but to anticipate and fully partner with her performance cohorts, she has become one of the most sought-after collaborative pianists in the area. Neither of these works is either simple or straightforward, yet she made the most of each. While the second set didn’t keep her in the spotlight as much, her playing set the scene with a masterful brush.
Poets Bogen and Constantine, while spending less time with us during the evening, had an equal impact with their powerful selections and funny, expressive performances. Laurel Ann Bogen, one of the grande dames of the local poetry world, is herself a “real Angeleno”, born and raised here, and clearly quite proud of it. She served up three SoCal-connected pieces: first “Untitled LA Poem”, which was a good entrée for the Abel songs which came later; then “Hollywood Hills Noir”, a beautiful ode to L.A.’s diverse native visuals, melded with Hammettesque stylistic effects; followed by “My Celluloid Heroes”, citing a reference to The Kinks and lamenting those “defined by fame, Pilates and exfoliation”. Her fourth poem, “October Knob and Broom”, is part of her own tradition of writing a new Halloween poem each year. All of these were charming and created by a master’s pen.
Brendan Constantine, a proud student of Bogen’s, has a self-deprecating manner and quick wit that combine and resulted in a seemingly off-the-cuff presentation that is reminiscent of the best jazz. Reading several poems with very different flavors, this improvisational vibe is present in his writing as well, mixing one surprising twist and turn after another, yet somehow landing in meaningful mysticism at the end. “Noct…”, for instance, is about those constipated moments when one tries to speak, but the words just don’t flow. Other poems included “Rule”, an ode to unforgettable poet Wanda Coleman, who died in 2013; and “Disclaimer”, which was performed with such skill and devastating humor that we were his; that connection continued through “Ghost madrigal”, “Red sugar, blue smoke” and “Still Life on Mars”.
What this evening proved, more than anything, is that both poetry and art song are still in full flower (at least in Los Angeles), and examples like this deserve our full attention. That is a beautifully hopeful thought as the somber tones of fall settle in.
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