The Athenaeum Hotel was built in the 19th century, the same period in which art songs sprouted to popularity — making the parlor of the Athenaeum Hotel the perfect setting for premieres.
Tonight, Chautauqua Opera Company Young Artist Bernardo Medeiros will debut a piece called “My Skeleton” by Mary Prescott, 2022 composer-in-residence, with lyrics from a poem by this week’s Chautauqua Scientific and Literary Circle author Jane Hirshfield.
Three other Young Artists will perform, too, constituting the first Chautauqua Opera art song recital of the season at 5:30 p.m. tonight in the Athenaeum Parlor. Usually, these performances begin in the afternoon; however, this recital titled “An Evening of Song” has a later start time for a very special reason.
Hirshfield will be on the grounds discussing her poetry collection Ledger, a 2022 CLSC selection, at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, June 30, in the Hall of Philosophy. Because her talk happens in the afternoon, Chautauqua Opera pushed back the art song recital to the evening so Hirshfield could attend the premiere.
Medeiros, who will perform composer-in-residence Prescott’s “My Skeleton,” said it was unique to collaborate with the composer of a piece.
Often, performers are left to guess the intentions of the composer, but with Prescott’s presence during rehearsals, there were conversations around the piece.
Rick Hoffenberg, the pianist for “My Skeleton,” said while Medeiros benefited in being able to ask Prescott questions, Prescott also benefited from the experience.
“As we were working on it and Bernardo was coming up with great ideas, at one point, she said, ‘Well, I’m going to mark that in.’ So it’s a continual process,” Hoffenberg said. “This piece is continuing to evolve as she works on it with us. As much as we appreciate having her here, I think she also enjoys the process of hearing her piece come to life and learning and adapting it as a result.”
In addition to the premiere of “My Skeleton,” Young Artist Max Potter will offer a new take on Meilina Tsui’s “Mother to Son,” which debuted in 2021. The lyrics come from the Langston Hughes poem of the same name
“Despite the title ‘Mother to Son,’ a countertenor (originally) sang it,” said Carol Rausch, chorus administrator and music administrator for Chautauqua Opera. “This will be the first time that a woman has sung it.”
Rausch, who plays piano for the piece, and Potter practiced with Tsui, who is a composer fellow this season. During the rehearsal, Tsui tailored the piece for Potter.
“We really enjoyed working with her (earlier this week). She made a couple of note changes and made it different for a woman’s voice,” Rausch said.
Like Medeiros, Potter appreciated the experience of working with the composer of the art song.
“Working with her on things like tempo and phrasing, and how she hears it in her head versus how I am performing it, is such a special resource to have,” Potter said.
To close out the recital, the four Young Artists, accompanied by Rausch, will sing “No One is Alone” in honor of American composer Stephen Sondheim, who died Nov. 26, 2021.
“ ‘No One is Alone’ is kind of the perfect theme song for post-pandemic,” said pianist Miriam Charney.
Luke Harnish, who will perform “No One is Alone,” has a history with the song.
“Into the Woods was the first musical or opera that I ever performed in. This would be back in high school, and I just (played) the Mysterious Man, a really small role,” Harnish said. “This musical has a very special place in my heart as it sort of brought me to the theater.”
For Hoffenberg, who helps create the program for recitals, choosing music which the artists love is at the root of art song recitals.
“We were able to go to the singers and say, ‘What are you most passionate about performing?’ ” Hoffenberg said. “I love doing that music because they inevitably bring something really special to it, and I know people are going to find that with this recital.”