GREENSBORO — Scrag Mountain Music managed to make a live-streamed concert feel almost as homey as Scrag’s trademark community concerts. Soprano Mary Bonhag, with pianist Hiromi Fukuda, performed a traditional hour-long vocal recital Saturday on the stage of the Highland Center for the Arts.
And, between selections, live commentary was delivered by Evan Premo, Scrag co-artistic director with wife Bonhag from their Marshfield home. Prerecorded were discussions of the spiritual essence of some of the works with Bonhag and Rev. Rev. Rona Kinsley, associate pastor of The Old Meeting House in East Montpelier Center, the Premo-Bonhag family’s church. And there was even a virtual reception afterwards.
And, like most Scrag concerts, the program was an unexpected mix of classics and not. The informal theme of the recital was spirituality and it’s no surprise that the masterpieces delivered most musically as well as lyrically.
Most probing and powerful were three selections from the 1939 “Chants de terre et de ciel (Songs of Earth and Heaven)” by the 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen. Bonhag has an unusual facility with Messiaen, delivering the unusual but affecting lines with her pure brilliant soprano. And Fukuda managed the complex and also affecting piano part with clarity and probity.
Bonhag and Fukuda were so sensitive to each other that they delivered a single message. In “Antienne du silence (Anthem of silence),” the prayerful message was achieved with a haunting solo voice and chiming piano. “Minuits pile et face (Midnight reverse and in front” (for death), was darkly dramatic, even angry in its portrayal of sin, but ended with tender innocence. “Résurrection (Resurrection)” (for Easter Day) expressed an almost uncontrolled joy.
Messiaen, a devout Roman Catholic, wrote the intense poems expressing his personal faith. Bonhag and Fukuda made Messiaen’s complex harmonic language seem entirely natural and expressed his message beautifully.
The other masterpiece, “The Crucifixion” from 20th century American composer Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs,” followed a similar theme. Barber brilliantly illustrated the tender text by an anonymous 12th century monk. With Bonhag and Fukuda, it proved heart-wrenchingly beautiful. (“Stranger Fruit,” intimate photos of African American mothers and their sons by Brooklyn artist Jon Henry, was streamed during the Barber.)
Holding its own among such heady company was the music of Burlington composer Don Jamison, five songs from “Lauren’s Prayer Book” with text by Lauren Aiken. The moods ranged from simple and haunting, asking, terrifying and haunting, pleading, and fading, and were reflected in a deceptively simple musical language, complemented by sophisticated piano writing. Bonhag and Fukuda delivered Jamison’s message simply and beautifully.
Also simple and beautiful was Randolph composer Kathy Wonson Eddy’s a cappella setting of a poem by Isaac Watts, “Sorrow and Love Flow Mingled Down.” Bonhag sang the folky line with a naturalness and simplicity that expressed Eddy’s characteristic warmth.
And there was much more in the hour-long recital. If there was any fault to find in this recital it would a limited color palette. However, Bonhag has not only a gorgeous coloratura soprano voice, she uses it expressively and makes her message personal. Fukuda, who teaches at Amherst College and is an artist-faculty member at Burlington’s Green Mountain Chamber Music Festival, is an excellent pianist with all the right instincts.
The program closed appropriately with an African American spiritual, “Walk Together, Children” (arr. Moses Hogan). As with the rest of the program, Bonhag and Fukuda made its message compelling and personal.