Composer Aaron Grad doesn’t feel constrained by conventional models; he fashions his means of expression to suit his end. For example: His cycle of Old-Fashioned Love Songs, written for his wife and commissioned by Strathmore, where it received its DMV premiere on Thursday night.
In the cycle, Alexandria-born Grad sets to music poems by…him, written largely in metrical rhyming verse. He also includes songs by composers as diverse as Henry Purcell and Cyndi Lauper, recontextualizing the tunes to his own ends as necessary. The only instrument Grad calls for is an electric theorbo, which he built and plays, although he said in a post-concert Q&A that he isn’t quite adept at playing it yet. All these songs were sung by Augustine Mercante, a music-school chum of Grad’s, who used his fine countertenor voice in any musical style Grad asked him to.
Sounds like a lot of ideas for one opus, but Grad has enough skill to make these disparate elements and novelties coalesce. The electric theorbo has an intimidating array of strings and outputs, but its general sounds are familiar enough: haunting strummed chords, percussive twangs, gently plucked melodies that hung sweetly in the air. (I was momentarily surprised when Grad used a sampler to layer on textures, but then, instruments can do that now.) It’s an old-fashioned instrument refashioned for modern purposes, and Grad made it sound good. It sounded particularly good tracing the close arpeggiated harmonies in Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger’s “Toccata No. 2,” which is the first music in Grad’s cycle and dates all the way from 1604.
The cycle actually opens with a spoken recitation of Grad’s “Preamble,” with the preamble set to music after Kapsberger has his moment. Grad’s poems are pretty sturdily constructed, with some witty turns, particularly in “Music Theory” — “Dissonance for its own sake/Is such a load of hooey!/We don’t needlessly complicate/Our composition, do we?” He is not entirely immune to the lure of a fine cliche, but like any good postmodernist he owns up to them: “A foolish quest this is, to bare my heart/Through tired, worn-out conventions.”
But he doesn’t just acknowledge the dead language; he gives it some new life. Part of this success comes from seeing in the songs by others a through-line across the centuries, particularly with the same vocalist and instrument enlisted to bring them to life. Part comes from how Grad cannily comments on the songs of other authorship; Stephen Foster’s “Kissing in the Dark” gets intro’ed by Grad’s “Risk Management,” a monologue of a nervous lover, in which the theorbo bristles with tension but also propels the music forward into the sweet oasis of the Foster. A reprise confirms that the risk has been successfully managed.
The whole thing wouldn’t work without Mercante. Grad tailored the cycle specifically to his voice, and so Mercante sounded extraordinary, a gorgeous voice that shifted from sparkling William Boyce to swinging George Gershwin without breaking a sweat. The sheer purity and high-ness of his male voice gave a timeless, universal feel Grad’s words as well, suiting a cycle that deals in big thoughts about love rather than specific thoughts about a person.
The closing two songs of the cycle both showed some of Grad’s best moves and scaled the steepest emotional heights. Normally, Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” reads as a lovers’ retreat, but Grad prefaced it with “The Poetics of Loss,” which begins, “If we cannot speak of death, Let us simply say: away.” Grad’s arrangement of the accompaniment, spare and clean, reinforced the new interpretation; once the song was done, the music slowly but surely rolled back into the Kapsberger with which the cycle began. All sorts of ideas and juxtapositions informed these moments, but Grad’s singular vision and skilled realization made them matter.