Pianist Lana Norris put mezzo-soprano Kelsey Park in touch with composer Denise Mei Yan Hofmann, and the result was a meticulously poignant, painterly suite performed by all three along with clarinetist Artemis Cheung yesterday on the Upper West Side. It was probably the first public performance ever for any cycle of art-songs on the subject of battling infertility.
Park had written a series of poems as a way of dealing with the issue herself. To share them with Norris, her friend, was brave to begin with. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any more soul-baring performance by any singer in front of an audience in this city in recent memory. And the material was worthy of the musicians’ emotional attunement to the music.
Beyond the ever-present, looming backdrop, the genius of Hofmann’s score to those poems was the choice of instrumentation. Pairing the rich, resonant lows of Park’s voice with close harmonies from the clarinet – whose range is almost exactly the same – made for a relentless unease. At times, Cheung’s airy, crystalline lines would either follow or foreshadow Park’s path as the music rose ineluctably from rainy-day plaintiveness to a short series of spine-tingling arioso crescendos.
As with the material, the program didn’t follow any any easily stereotyped format. Norris opened with a tensely spare Hofmann solo piano piece spiced with distant gospel allusions and vividly mournful belltone accents. Hofmann then played acoustic guitar through a Fender amp, maxing out the reverb, joining Park and Cheung for a trio of spacious, uneasily crescendoing, circling songs, ending with a delicate, somewhat wounded waltz.
Hofmann then had the trio of Park, Norris and Cheung play short excerpts from the suite before tackling the whole thing. Was Park going to be able to make it through the relentless angst of one of its most dramatic moments, using all of her impressive upper register with the phrase “Why me?” over and over again? Much as she visibly teared up, the power in her voice wouldn’t give in to defeat. Ultimately, both Park’s lyrics and Hofmann’s music were resolute in the face of challenges to faith and hope, pushing despair away and finally finding calm and sense of renewed optimism.
Water imagery, both musical and lyrical, was a central theme early on. Cheung shifted calmly from long, airy tones to brief, moody phrases in her midrange and lower: there were points at which she could have been playing a bass clarinet. Likewise, Norris walked a steady line between Hoffmann’s deft blend of terse neoromanticism and postminimalist acidity while Park held steady, only to rise to the rafters in three explosive peaks, the first to open the suite.
“Is motherhood selfish?” Park asked herself during a brief mid-concert Q&A. No, she’d decided. She didn’t address the idea head-on, but her concept of motherhood embraces children without Instagram status-grubbing or turning them into yuppie bling.
While the struggle to beat physical challenges to become a mother is seldom publicly discussed, it’s very common. And it’s hardly an exclusively female problem. Since the first atom bomb tests over seventy years ago, mens’ potency in terms of ability to conceive has diminished by almost fifty percent on a global level: toxic radionuclides have had a devastating effect. While she didn’t get into any kind of trouble on the male side of the equation, Park deserves enormous credit for having the courage to tackle an issue which, even while it impacts literally millions of people worldwide, is still seldom discussed in public, let alone onstage.