Sit down and rummage around in your imagination’s darkest reaches for the worst musical idea you can think up. A rewrite of Verdi’s “Aida” with a new score by Elton John? A parcel of Bob Dylan lyrics newly set to the typically shiny, slick, faceless music by John Corigliano? Neck and neck, wouldn’t you say?
Well, the new-fangled “Aida” is doing OK, if not great, on Broadway, and the much-admired American soprano Sylvia McNair is traipsin’ the countryside with “Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan,” its attraction not at all impeded by its composer’s recent Oscar (for more of the same typically shiny etc. music for “The Red Violin”).
The crowd at Sunday’s Celebrity Recital was on the paltry side, smaller than the splendor of McNair’s proven artistry deserves, larger than the prospect of the evening’s major work held forth. Word does, after all, get around.
Corigliano’s program note has it that he hadn’t heard a note of Dylan’s songs until the Carnegie Hall commission (awarded to McNair for a song-cycle, who then chose the composer) came his way; that, for a red-blooded American born in 1938 and raised on these shores, takes some doing.
Whether from ignorance or malice, he has been keenly successful in circumventing the Dylan essence, the gritty insinuation that goes out from all the great lyrics to shape an inescapable, elementary kind of melody, simplistic but insistent.
He has chosen his texts well: “Tambourine Man,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “All Along the Watchtower,” all faves, and stifled them all under a suffocating blanket of Art.
One of the most cherishable members of the current multitude of gifted and omnipotent American sopranos, in an awesome, floor-length, velvet Lurex getup that gleamed even more brilliantly than what she had to sing, McNair delivered her dubious material with complete faith, even aided by a touch of huskiness that set in late in the program.
Earlier, in an equally handsome concert gown of memorable crimson, she had wrapped a gathering of French and Spanish songs in her familiar high artistry, with Ted Taylor contributing one brief solo and modest pianistic support in the songs. At the end a single brief encore, Mozart’s ecstatic “Alleluia,” served to clear the air.