The Italian Songbook

While most members of the school were preparing for the Gelb dance and other Saturday night activities, Phillips Academy voice instructors Barbara Kilduff-O’Farrell and Allen Combs, accompanied by Christopher Walter on the piano, gave a stunning interpretation of Hugo Wolf’s “The Italian Songbook.” Their voice concert was held in Cochran Chapel at 7:30. When asked why they chose to perform “The Italian Songbook,” Combs said, “It’s one of these great monuments of music… It’s a festival occasion to do the whole thing all at once.” The work on this major project took the duo several years of planning. Each of the forty-six anonymously-written Italian poems was translated to German and set to a short melody. Every piece conveyed a diverse variety of emotions, from anger and frustration to hope and humor. Some were sung by the male voice and others by the female; they switched after every two or three songs. The two singers strode calmly onto the stage before an audience sparsely seated in the front half of the chapel. Kilduff opened the concert, stealing the spotlight with her clear, operatic soprano voice, her German diction impeccable. Combs was just as engaging, his tenor voice passionate with dynamic contrasts. In addition to Kilduff and Combs’ obvious talent, Walter was also an integral facet of the show. Combs acknowledged Walter’s piano accompaniment and said, “Mr. Walter is a master at playing this repertoire. He and I have collaborated countless times over the years.” To perform a diverse repertoire of vocal masterpieces, singers must develop a command of several different languages. Combs said, “As singers we are really expected to be able to sound as if we were native speakers in whatever language, at the very least Italian, French, and German.” In parts of “The Italian Songbook,” one could sense a dialogue between the male and female voices. Combs said, “There’s something of a narrative, but it’s not really cohesive…Some of [the songs] definitely answer each other.” The first poem in the collection began with the phrase, “Even little things can delight us,” which set the tone for the rest of the program’s “little things.” Combs said about the songs, “Each one is a gem in its own way.” Several songs portrayed humorous personalities, receiving chuckles from the audience. The tenth piece, Kilduff sang the last line briskly and threw her hands up: “I am in love–but just not with you!” Song eleven expressed Kilduff’s desire for a lover who is a musician. The postlude in the piano imitated the sound of a violin played hesitantly with little skill. Kilduff turned her head deliberately to listen to her distant lover attempting to play the violin, drawing laughs from the crowd. Few students attended the concert, and those who did generally went to fulfill their music class requirements. Those who did not attend missed out on a night of sensational musical emotion. Combs said, “We always wish we could fill the house…But it’s a very intimate piece of music. In a way, it’s meant to be in a smaller space…[to] be able to communicate directly with the people.”