“Abel combines tuneful original passages with rock and jazz elements to form unique tonal structures … a colorful blend of styles … a powerful emotional punch.”
“(In the Rear View Mirror, Now) shows his mastery of tragedy as composer, musician and poet.”
Composer Mark Abel’s new disc, Time and Distance, contains the world premieres of two song cycles and three substantial individual works I hope to hear at a live recital in the near future. Recitals need not be filled with museum pieces. There are audience-worthy new works being written every day. Abel combines tuneful original passages with rock and jazz elements to form unique tonal structures. With a colorful blend of styles, he communicates the nature of each work, often with a powerful emotional punch. Mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano and soprano Hila Plitmann are “crossover” singers who straddle the void between concert, opera, and musical theater. Both sing with the kind of diction that makes it possible to walk across the room or even do a chore and not miss a word of the poetry.
Abel wrote both the music and the lyrics for The Invocation and The Benediction, strong pieces enveloping and anchoring the two song cycles that form the main dishes of Abel’s program. In the opening piece, The Invocation, the mezzo reminds us of the answerless questions posed by modern existence. Life offers us a void that gives no hints on how to achieve happiness during our sojourn here. Must we earn happiness? Carol Rosenberger’s fluent playing is the perfect accompaniment to DeStefano’s rose-velvet tones. In the closer, The Benediction, Abel’s hope for a brighter future lights our land “from sea to shining sea.” The bright, sunny tones of Hila Plitmann and pianist Tali Tadmor bring hope to what would otherwise be contemplation of our era’s many inadequacies.
Plitmann continues with Those Who Loved Medusa, a song that has a text by Los Angeles poet Kate Gale. It speaks to the tragedy of so many young women who have only recently begun to speak out with “Me too” stories of sexual assault. Just as Medusa was found guilty when Poseidon raped her in ancient Greece, we still blame the victim in cases of sexual aggression. Although we think of Medusa as a horrible monster, she was a beautiful girl before Poseidon’s wife, Athena, cursed her and changed the strands of her hair into snakes. Plitmann’s unadorned silvery high notes remind the listener that young girls are a precious, beautiful treasure not to be wasted. Carol Rosenberger accompanies her with virtuosic style and Bruce Carver’s delicate percussion gives the work a feeling of Hellenic antiquity.
In the Rear View Mirror, Now is a cycle of three songs that speak to our modern condition. These days we are apt to listen to a recital, not in the concert hall, but where we so often hear music instead, in the car. First, Plitmann, Tadmor, and organist Mark Abel tell of a romance doomed by a clash of personalities. Next, they lament the lost world of North Beach, Chinatown, and the Haight. In the third song they deplore the insubstantial friendships of the modern era and finish with, “They’d have kicked you off the Titanic’s lifeboat if it came to that.” As a journalist for more than two decades, Abel has seen a great deal of the world and he often reflects its grimy underbelly. Here, he shows his mastery of tragedy as composer, musician, and poet.
Abel’s song cycle The Ocean of Forgiveness contains five poems by Joanne Regenhardt that describe the glory of nature and some of the joys and sorrows felt by those who live in it. The titles are: “Desert Wind,” “Sally’s Suicide,” “In Love with the Sky,” “Reunion,” and “Patience.” The final song sums it up best: “We wait until the leaves are gone and every shell washed clean by the ocean of forgiveness.” The poems are part of Regenhardt’s Canadian-published collection Soundings.
I was particularly pleased by DeStefano’s exquisite beauty of tone and her variety of vocal colors as she and Tadmor performed “Patience,” which ends with “Until together we will love the world.” If only we could. What we can do is listen to the music on this well-recorded disc and contemplate both word and tone. This is a recording to keep in the car for meaningful listening.
—Maria Nockin, Fanfare
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