In the Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrick Stearns reviewed the first of the premiere concerts of In This Blue Room—the cycle setting four poets inspired by the batik paintings of Laura Pritchard—and in the Broad Street Review, Tom Purdom reviewed the second. Purdom had also written up a preview of the concerts in BSR after attending the preview party where four of the songs were presented.
Almost a dozen people have clipped out the Inquirer review to give to me, and almost without fail they say something like, “I’ve read this a couple of times, and still don’t know if he liked it.” You can make up your own mind by clicking the link above, but I’m going to go out on a limb to say that Stearns liked it and seemed to appreciate what it was attempting to do. But he also was somewhat puzzled by it.
That’s okay by me; I’m kind of puzzled by it, too. “Smith…pulled a large rabbit out of the hat: The last thing I expected was a jazz-hybrid idiom.” The songs “functioned in ways familiar to classical art song,” but with elements made up from “Sarah Vaughan-era jazz,” which is exactly right, as I explain in my notes here.
A surprise to me was his reference to “Leonard Bernstein’s late-period Arias and Barcarolles, with its wide range of compositional techniques, vernacular and otherwise.” He may be right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. But this happens all the time. People will hear things in my music completely distant from where I think the materials are pointing. I thought one old piece was right out of Hindemith, yet a friend heard Debussy. Composer colleagues of mine admit to similar experiences.
He noted places where the poems zig and I zagged; precisely so, and captured in one word the atmosphere of one song: “lounge-y.” Perfect!
I think that he was thrown by some passages of fast parlando, the vocalese-like writing mimicking instrumental improvisation, which the singers caught excellently. Laura Ward accompanied brilliantly but maybe I should have allowed her to “let loose” more? Hm.
I’m amused by how some look at my music. I started with vocal music and have written that for years. So it’s funny to me to read “Songs are not what Kile Smith is known for amid a high-concept output that includes sacred choral works and new music for ancient instrument[s].” Of course, I was toiling in relative obscurity, so it could be true that I’m not “known for” that. But it is funny to me, in the same way that people hear recent pieces I’ve written for The Crossing and think that all I write, after decades of writing for amateur choirs, is, well, hard stuff.
Tom Purdom’s preview includes an awfully nice compliment: “His work can evoke torch songs and jazz without actually being either, along with a spectrum of moods and styles that are uniquely his.” In his review, he went on to write that the songs “may or may not be pure jazz but they evoke the spirit of jazz and late-night clubs. The two singers who presented the premiere, mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis and baritone Daniel Teadt, captured that spirit with every bar they sang.”
He also mused over my wrangling of the 17 poems into a narrative of my own making, which sparked some interesting and perhaps humorous questions for him, before he concluded that this was an “unforgettable episode in Lyric Fest’s unpredictable journey through the world of song.”
I can say this without a doubt, which you make take with a grain of salt because the following is my review: with these musicians, this poetry, this artwork, and whatever this music was, the audiences were bowled over by In This Blue Room.