Washington soprano Elizabeth Kirkpatrick's recital at American University last night centered on music of living American composers. As if taking a cue from the opening song cycle by Edmund Soule, "New Wine," the works possessed warmth stemming from their unabashed tonality: new wine, without a doubt, but packaged in old bottles, at least from a strictly musical standpoint.
From the outset, Kirkpatrick exhibited a vocal power and presence that seized the drama of the texts, investing each word with a zealous attack. Although her voice threatened to engulf certain phrases on occasion, her adroit dynamic shading preserved the crucial balance between music and lyric.
The most challenging (and therefore most rewarding) piece, "Ariel," a cycle set to selected poems from Sylvia Plath by Ned Rorem, one of the finest American songwriters, is a real trial by fire. Piercing shrieks and roulades coil around lyrical melodies. Mere theatrics will not breathe life into the smoldering passion and tactile imagery of Plath's verse. Kirkpatrick unleashed a full spectrum of emotional colors, from the febrile intoxication of "Poppies in July" to the netherworld contempt surrounding "Lady Lazarus." When she slowly raised her arms and menacingly intoned the closing line, "And I eat men like air," one envisioned a contemporary Fury.
Pianist Mario Salerno and clarinetist Charles Steir created a spectacular atmosphere in "Ariel." Salerno unleashed a dizzying array of granitic clusters and rippling figures with the right hand, while Steir delivered phrases adorned with wide leaps and acrobatic trills.