Two of US: Lucas Meachem & Irina Meachem, ‘Shall We Gather’

This is a big, bold, beautiful beast of an album: a concept recital that uses song to grapple with belonging, community and how those noble aims align with what it means to be American.

Let me say at the outset that this is a bravura performance by both singer and pianist. This may be a debut ‘solo album’ for Lucas Meachem – or to be more accurate, a duo release with his wife, pianist Irina Meachem – but the confidence and brio absolutely reflect an already illustrious career on the opera stage.

Listening on headphones, the sheer power present in the voice is electrifying, making Meachem’s mastery of that power – the ability to rein it in at the more reflective moments – all the more affecting. Whatever intuition or telepathy the couple share when performing together is very much in evidence, with Ms Meachem’s accompaniment proving a robust equal to the vocal.

For me, one of the interesting features of the album is how it walks a tightrope between its potential mass appeal (more of this later) and, at times, its supremely focused, even provocative content. It doesn’t shy away from issues of national identity: it opens with a song called ‘American Anthem’, tackles head-on issues and events burned into the American consciousness (from the Depression to 9/11, from race to poverty) and features US figureheads of both words (Walt Whitman) and music (Stephen Foster).

This unashamed – and I use that as a compliment – ‘Americanness’ forced me to confront the extent to which I listen as a Brit, with British ‘ears’. For example, I found the song about the 9/11 attacks, ‘That Moment On’ (music: Jake Heggie, words: Gene Scheer) extremely difficult to take. This was not purely because of the horrific, tragic subject matter – why on earth should such a song be ‘easy’? – but also the unflinching nature of the lyric, and sentimental (as in, fully alive to feelings) setting. Even the catch in the narrator’s voice as he describes some items salvaged from the rubble is written into the music. This tapped into reserves of emotion that I am not used to accessing – mission accomplished for the musicians, I am sure.

To a lesser extent, the opening Anthem has a similar effect, citing freedom, bravery, generosity and dignity as quintessentially American values, a declaration which in the context of the present day, I believe, recognises a nation no doubt in need of healing and a reassertion of those values. Again, I heard the beautiful difficulty in this song, its naked optimism, as someone who feels increasingly at odds with their own country, and more inclined to look downwards and shuffle their feet when reminded of being from the UK.

Art song is a difficult genre to pin down: its meaning can be as precise as ‘setting pre-existing poetry to music for piano’… to something as arch as ‘what you call a song when a classical composer writes it’. Neither, of course, covers it. American art song’s youthful nature – here, there and everywhere you can’t help but hear influences of jazz, blues, spirituals, showtunes – enables the Meachems to range across styles with ease. That’s why, to my mind, this disc deserves to break through to an audience comfortable with musical theatre and ‘crossover’ repertoire as well as classical song aficionados: both camps (which of course overlap) are likely to discover something new and rewarding.

I enjoyed, for example, the album’s inclusion of ‘conventional’ songwriting. Art song has tended to be a distant exercise where the composer takes up the text independently. Several of the tracks here feature lyrics by the composers themselves, something far more common in rock music. (There are of course exceptions on both sides – thinking instantly of a song cycle I happen to love, Debussy’s ‘Proses lyriques’. Or the ready-made lyrics Bernie Taupin supplies remotely to Elton John.)

This inevitably has an effect on the end result: you would expect the words and music to align somewhat, to follow each other more closely. In Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ and Carrie Jacobs-Bonds’s ‘A Perfect Day’ proceed with the stately exactness of hymns. For more intrigue, turn to Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘You Will Always Be My Friend’, a showstopper in art-song clothing if ever there was one, with an apparently simple lyric that, on closer reading, seems impossible to separate from the AIDS crisis that impacted the composer personally. The music follows where the text leads.

The tracks that made the strongest impression on me and will keep me returning to this album, are in fact those that ‘operate’ more in line with an art song method – perhaps because I respond to that slight disconnect between words and music, that challenge to the composer’s art to make something from another discipline sound natural.

William Grant Still’s ‘Grief’, with its more abstract text by LeRoy V Brant, is almost static, its austere chant driving Meachem into hushed meditation – as if conjuring a tombstone in song – before a momentary section of release, then return to mourning. Two of Aaron Copland’s ‘Old American Songs’ (adaptations of earlier tunes, much like Britten or Vaughan Williams, say, would prepare with UK folk songs) present, in turn, a fractured, stop-start intensity, then a hesitant, if handsome, re-imagining.

‘Song of the Deathless Voice’ is remarkable, one of the ‘Indian Songs’ of Arthur Farwell – a composer remembered for his study and promotion of Native American influences in classical music – and sure enough, this is something from another tradition, almost free of rhythmic constraint and demanding vast changes of pitch and volume from Meachem: two minutes I found myself replaying over and over.

Florence Price’s ‘Night’, with its quiet but propulsive piano part, and slow build almost sounds like a spectral lost Schubert lied, a cousin of ‘Nacht und Träume’ or ‘Du bist die Ruh’ re-imagined as a torch song. Perhaps my favourite track of all is ‘Litany’, a setting by John Musto of words by Langston Hughes. Modest, containing just as much sound as it needs and no more, it begins with a delicately, simple prelude and elegantly makes its way back to it at the end (the use of a two-chord chime made me think of Schumann’s opening figure for the ‘Frauen-Liebe und Leben’ cycle). In between, the piano is almost a whispered prompt to float the sparse prayer of the verse. Less, here, is exactly right.

AA

All proceeds from the sale of ‘Shall We Gather’ go to the ‘Perfect Day Foundation’, a non-profit organisation set up by the Meachems to promote diversity in classical music.

All photography from the press pack is by Nate Ryan.

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