Like the prose poem, the art song can seem a neglected foster child. A song but not a pop song, it typically has the musical sophistication and seriousness we associate with the great traditions of classical and romantic music, but its subject matter can be frothy as well as fiery, humorous as easily as heavy. But American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives are generally better known for instrumental or choral works than for their art songs, while even many classical music lovers may not know Franz Schubert's stunning song cycle Winterreisse, an important progenitor of the genre.
Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability in The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies. Weaving art songs and show tunes together, she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. While I know a bit about art songs, something about musical theater, and even some Schubert, I cheerfully admit I didn't recognize many of the selections. Cheerfully because it made the show edifying as well as enjoyable. I wasn't familiar with Copland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and here was the lovely "Heart we will forget him." I didn't know the American composer William Bolcom's witty ditty "Toothbrush Time" – here it was. Another revelation: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon."
A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano). The overrated Avenue Q has given us one lasting tune, the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line," sung by Ms. Medoff with understated sensitivity.
One remarkable thing about the show is the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy. This makes just about any song they perform something more than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of seeing a longstanding piano trio or string quartet, or a singing group consisting of siblings – a conductorless ensemble breathing together as if one creature. During the quietest passages the piano occasionally drowned out the voice, but this was not the performers' fault. The operatically-trained Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the program showed off her range without going overboard. The purpose wasn't to impress (or didn't come across that way), but to amuse and delight, and maybe introduce us to some unfamiliar but very worthwhile material. And that it did.
The duo has put together a few such cabaret cycles. If you have an opportunity to see this one, or anything else they do, grab it!