LITA GRIER: 5 Songs for Children; Sneezles; 5 Songs from A Shropshire Lad; 2 Songs from Emily Dickinson; Songs from Spoon River; Reflections of a Peacemaker – Michelle Areyzaga, soprano/ Elizabeth Norman, soprano/ Scott Ramsey, tenor/ Alexander Tall, baritone/ Levi Hernandez, baritone; Welz Kauffman, piano/ William Billingham, piano/ John Goodwin, piano/ Tina Laughlin, percussion/ Anne Bach, oboe/ Chicago Children’s Choir/ Josephine Lee, conductor – Cedille 90000 112, 67:45 **** [Naxos]:
Lita Grier, winner of the New York Philharmonic’s Young Composer’s Contest at age 16, is a music victim for certain. The Nazi-like atonal and avantgarde academic environment that so dominated the 50s through 70s in this country made it impossible for: 1) a woman, and 2) a tonalist composer to succeed in any meaningful way, and she decided it just wasn’t worth the effort. 30 years later she is getting her just deserts, though she never stopped composing completely. But it has been quite the resurgence, with new commissions coming all the time, and notoriety as well—she was named a “Chicagoan of the Year” in 2005.
This is the first disc ever dedicated solely to her music. As such it includes pieces from the very beginning (1955) all the way to 2008, when the last of the Spoon River Songs was completed. All of this music is worth hearing; stylistically it is quite normative across all periods with a remarkable consistency, though there are works here that I liked more than others. Despite the simplicity and artlessness of the 5 Songs for Children (set to texts of Millay, Lowell, La Mare, Rossetti, and Miller), when you hear Sneezles you realize what a perceptive artist this really is. A. A. Milne’s clever Disney-owned texts are caught to perfection with Grier’s perfect choice of accompaniment: oboe, percussion, and piano.
The 2 Songs from Emily Dickinson (“I cannot live with you” and “I taste liquor never brewed”) stand out in this collection as quite different from the others; I think that Grier here is actually adapting her style to face the more stringent requirements imposed on any composer by the chewy Dickinson texts, and she does the job beautifully. The music holds back and lets the text be the driving force, though there are certain virtuosic aspects to this music that preclude it from amateurs.
The Shropshire Lad poems are well-set by many composers. I like the way that baritone Robert Sims sings them here, lightly and with a great deal of affection. But the Songs from Spoon River, her largest composition to date and composed over a five year period, is probably the most significant in terms of overall emotive expression and textual faithfulness. Edgar Lee Masters’s tombstone poetry deals with a wide range of stories not necessarily—in fact they aren’t—connected, yet Grier finds an overarching theme to them all—death, and life either fulfilled or unfulfilled—and is able to spin a tone that pervades all of these pieces.
The Reflections of Peacemaker by now deceased child poet Mattie Stepanek (if you don’t know his story, Google him—it is unbelievably moving) is sung by a children’s choir, and the music is adapted accordingly—more tuneful, basic yet cleverly construed harmonies, and a simplicity that emphasizes the children’s aspect of the poetry while not dumbing it down.
This album is well worth acquiring, a long overdue tribute to a woman whose compositional corpus is long overdue itself. Cedille offers great notes and full texts in a first-class production. The performances are committed and dependable in every way.
— Steven Ritter