Tara Hugo Sings Philip Glass: Always Neverwas; Let the Letter Read You; How Much I Love You; The New Rule; Spinning; Feeding Frenzy; Streets of Berlin; A Sip of Wine; Cabin in the Rockies; Kabul; Planctus; The Night of Santiago – Tara Hugo, sop./ Christian Rutledge & Trevor Gureckis, p./ Megan Gould, Luke Cissell & Claudia Chopek, violins/ Karen Waltuch, viola/ Noah Hoffeld, cello/ Logan Coale, doublebass/ Alex Sopp, flute/ Hideaki Aomari, clarinet/ Alicia Lee, bass clarinet/ Ashley Jackson, harp/ Freddie Stevenson & Danielle Schwob, guitars – Orange Mountain Music OMM 0084, 51:05 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

Tara Hugo is an English-trained actress of no little accomplishment, starting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London under Hugh Cruttwell and beginning her career at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, playing leading roles such as the title role in Romeo and Juliet, Saint Joan and Antigone. She sings a wide range of music including classical, contemporary, jazz, blues, and country music, as well as her own lyrics and compositions. Hugo was a principal singer in the Philip Glass/Leonard Cohen Book of Longing, which toured off and on internationally for two years. An ensemble of four singers and seven musicians, including Philip Glass, the song cycle was conducted by Michael Riesman and staged by choreographer Susan Marshall. For the New York Shakespeare Festival, she was a Bacchant in The Bacchae, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, with music composed by Philip Glass. So as can be seen, apart from a wide variety of musical enterprises and acting forays, she has the requisite experience with the music of Glass to take on an album like this with a boatload of authority.

And what music it is! I have always thought that the seeds of Glass’s work lay not so much in rhythm and minimalism, which are both very important of course, but instead in the I-IV-V7-I cadences of the popular music idiom, one of the gut-level instinctual things that made his operas so attractive to the multitudes in the 1980s. Even though it was opera there was something about it that resonated with many new audiences and this was it. This in no way denigrates his music; what he did with the idiom is to elevate it to new heights, dragging along an audience that would have—and indeed, did—revolt at other attempts to expand the cultural horizon far beyond the common populace. And over the years he did lose some of that following as his works ventured into new areas or more complex subject matter, and there is, as we all know, a sort of same ‘ol same ‘ol familiarity to his music in his lesser works that works against him. But turning now to some of his songs, unadulterated with theatrical tricks and the hyper-sensitive cult gushing of his followers, we are able to examine some of what makes Glass Glass. It is simply, two things—simplicity and a voluminous capacity for expressing deeply-felt emotions in the barest of terms.

Choosing a cabaret or torchlight singer might be thought unacceptable in music like this, but actually it is perfect. I was stunned at some of Glass’s melodies on this disc. He knows just when to shift the harmonies or vary the melodic curve to convey the perfect expression of the very expression-oriented texts that he has chosen. One only has to listen to a few moments of Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing poem “How Much I Love You” to be moved to a flood of tears, and the intricate pathos and melancholia of the same “A Sip of Wine” makes you wonder just how far any song can take you in terms of sheer expression. It doesn’t end there—each of these mini-masterpieces has its own story to tell, and Tara Hugo, with her magnificent sense of timing and storytelling, coupled with genuine love and affection for these pieces that translates into a rarified and unbelievable sense of conveyance, has given us not a product but a genuine gift that should have millions forking out money without even thinking about it, at least in a more perfect world. The is not a perfect world of course, but albums like this certainly help it, and this release should be acquired by all music lovers, regardless of stripe; it’s that good.

—Steven Ritter