Soprano Sharon Harms celebrates George Crumb and other daring composers with Singin’ in the Rain

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      The assassination of a president, death by drowning, and a variety of introspective examinations of love, loss, and longing: it’s clear from this list that the Migratory V concert series’s Singin’ in the Rain event is not, as some might expect, a sunny tribute to ’50s Hollywood and Gene Kelly’s infectious grin. Far from it. But the show—which will star soprano Sharon Harms, pianist Joan Forsyth, and guitarist William Anderson—will encompass a variety of serious pleasures, including a chance to fete a pioneering American modernist, George Crumb, whose song cycle Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises for Soprano and Amplified Piano is the centrepiece of its adventurous program.

      “This is his 90th-birthday-celebration year, and I had the pleasure of doing a big birthday celebration for him in New York, back in the fall,” explains Harms, reached while enjoying the view of English Bay from a Kits Beach café. “Apparition was one of the pieces we didn’t do, but it’s a piece that I keep going back to over and over again. That text is centred around ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’, Walt Whitman’s beautiful, long, elegiac poem about the passing of President Lincoln and how he dealt with that. So the text is very much this kind of cyclical look at death, and coming to terms with death; seeing death as a natural part of cycles. So in my mind that’s kind of where we started, and from there Joan gave me the option of picking one or two other American composers that I might want to do that might not be familiar to Vancouver audiences.”

      One of those is Harms’s friend Jesse Jones, whose Los Niños, a setting for voice and guitar of five texts from the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, plumbs similarly weighty topics.

      “They’re not poems that necessarily all live together in Lorca’s world, but they all share Lorca’s overriding obsession with death,” Harms says, noting that the mood of the piece also draws on Jones’s memories of his brother, who drowned when they were children. “So there’s this whole idea of death—maybe not so literal as the death of children, but the death of innocence and the death of being naive, as well as fearing it and seeing the beauty of love that comes about when someone dies, or when an idea dies.

      “Every movement is quite different,” she continues. “Some are very sad and painful, while other pieces are very folklike and a little more uptempo. And then at other times, in a dramatic flurry, he’ll suddenly invoke this very flamenco-ish kind of style. They’re hard to describe, because they’re very complete in their thoughts and their ideas, but they all live in the same harmonic world. They’re tuneful, and the guitar has an insanely beautiful amount of work and language.”

      Rounding out the program are works from B.C. composers Frank Brickle, Stephen Chatman, Rodney Sharman, and Jocelyn Morlock, whose themes are less morbid, but similarly reflective. Their shared question, Harms suggests, is “What does it all mean?” And in that sense, she continues, Singin’ in the Rain’s program goes beyond sorrow to include an appropriately vernal theme of resurrection.

      “Rather than ‘This is all about tragedy,’ you could say ‘This is about renewal,’ ” she says. And we all know that spring’s rebirth is impossible without rain, and song.

      Migratory V presents Singin’ in the Rain at Pyatt Hall on Sunday (March 8).