Love: For poets and composers, it’s the gift that keeps on giving — and, with his cycle “Old-Fashioned Love Songs,” Aaron Grad has put together a whole panorama devoted to finding love and holding on to it. On a bunch of levels, its performance Thursday at the Mansion at Strathmore was uniquely personal.
Grad, who conceived the cycle as an extended love song to his wife, has devised his own cycle form, alternating 11 of his own pieces written to his own poetry with an eclectic five centuries of songs by other composers, from John Dowland to Cyndi Lauper. The songs followed each other seamlessly and sometimes even shared lines of text. Grad scored it for countertenor (sung by his friend, Augustine Mercante) and electric theorbo, an instrument he imagined, designed and built himself. It’s a sort of long-necked amplified lute with extra bass strings, which he played with considerable artistry and discretion. The theorbo had a vigorous but rather brief life in the 17th and 18th centuries, and its electrified descendant proved to be capable of both heart-throbbing pathos and modest, folksy longing.
Grad’s songs, eminently vocal, occasionally augmented by digitized loops, seemed to take on the flavor of the idioms around them, whether the salon naughtiness of Stephen Foster’s “Kissing in the Dark” or the Iberian dance rhythms of an anonymous 20th century “Romanza.” His passion may be jazz (as he mentioned in a post-concert talk), but in this cycle his music seemed grounded more in a sort of modal, baroque-like folk.
Mercante sang with a full-bodied sweetness and exemplary pitch, and his shaping of the crescendos in Dowland’s “Come Again, Sweet Love” was just one example of a reliably musical imagination. Grad’s songs never challenged Mercante’s upper register and, although his diction was dark and seemed to come from way back in his throat, he handled everything with apparent ease.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.