Contemporary music highlighted in today’s Artsongs recital

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

At 4 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ, three Opera Company Studio Artists will present the latest in the weekly Artsongs recital series.

This week, the songs will have a distinctly modern feel. All but two of them were written in the 20th century.

The three singers who will be performing are tenor Michael Desnoyers, mezzo Katherine McGookey and bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba.

Desnoyers is no stranger to Chautauqua, having been a part of the program two years ago. He said he couldn’t keep from coming back.

“I really enjoy everything about this place,” Desnoyers said. “Of course coming back was an easy decision for me.”

Desnoyers will be singing a total of seven songs: “I de stora skogarna,” “Mellan gråa stenar” and “Lyckokatt” from a set entitled “I min älsklings trädgård” by Finish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, “To Gratiana Dancing and Singing” by W. Denis Browne, “The Vagabond” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Before Life and After” by Benjamin Britten and “Love Went A-Riding” by Frank Bridge.

He said the Rautavaara pieces, which are set to Swedish lyrics, are fairly well known among Finnish music.

“After Sibelius, Rautavaara is the most well-known Finnish composer, and he’s still alive today,” Desnoyers said.

He said many of the pieces speak of childhood.

“So they’re really playful but also really beautiful,” he said.

Desnoyers said many people think of “To Gratiana Dancing and Singing” as the greatest British art song ever written.

“It paints a picture of a woman dancing,” Desnoyers said. “And the music twirls and has a dancing motion.”

The theme of the Vaughan Williams piece is independence, Desnoyers said.

“It’s about love of traveling, and love of being alone,” he said. “So it’s very different from the others.”

The Britten is more of a challenge, he said.

“It’s tricky to decipher what they’re saying, because they’re talking about a time before we had feelings,” he said. “It’s really interesting about how it describes emotions as a disease.”

Desnoyers said the work by Frank Bridge is a whimsical piece about Cupid and love.

“You get the idea of Cupid riding over the earth, and he brings not only love with him, but also life,” he said. “It’s a really nice closer.”

Desnoyers earned an undergraduate degree from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and a master’s degree from San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Later in the season, he will be singing the role of Monostatos in Chautauqua Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. After Chautauqua, he will travel back to San Francisco to sing with the San Francisco Opera’s outreach program, which performs opera programs in schools.

McGookey said the appreciation for the arts at Chautauqua is refreshing.

“There are so many people here who appreciate all of the different art forms,” McGookey said. “It’s really a unique place.”

McGookey will be singing a seven-song set titled “La Fraîcheur et le Feu’’ by Francis Poulenc and two Russian lullabies by composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Modest Mussorgsky.

The Poulenc, McGookey said, is about love and the meaning of life.

“Poetically, it’s a cycle about a man’s search for meaning and self-enlightenment,” she said. “He discovers that it’s woman that he’s been looking for.”

Of the Russian songs, she said, “They’re very dark, and they talk about death and suffering, but they still have a little bit of a folky quirk to them too.”

She completed her undergraduate schooling at Capital University in Ohio, and she is going into her second year in graduate school at Northwestern University.

She said that after she finishes her graduate degree, she hopes to attend more young artists programs and “get ready for life.”

Ollarsaba has done similar young artists programs elsewhere, but said this one offers something unique.

“The camaraderie here is really nice, and we have a lot of time with the directors, which are things you miss in larger programs,” Ollarsaba said.

Ollarsaba is originally from Arizona, went to undergraduate school at the Cleveland Institute of Music and just finished his master’s degree at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.

He will be singing a five-song cycle by Gerald Finzi titled “Let Us Garlands Bring.”

He said the Finzi is special because of the lyrics, all by Shakespeare.

“They’re all from different plays,” he said. “One of them is from ‘Twelfth Night;’ another is from ‘As You Like It.’ All of them function as songs in the original plays.”

After Chautauqua, Ollarsaba will return to North Carolina to get a post-graduate certificate and will audition for other young artists programs.

The program will close with two trios featuring all three singers; the first is from Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” and one from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”

“They’re good little closers, and they feature a solo from each of us,” Desnoyers said.