Classical music offers a deep well of rich material for a would-be music lover. But it can be intimidating to explore, and going to a three- or four-hour opera presented in German can be forever off-putting to the uninitiated and permanently mar the psyche of anyone with a weaker constitution.
What's a person to do?
Eapen Leubner, the founder of the Denver Art Song Project, says that the art song is a great way to jump into classical music and opera for anyone who might find themselves curious about the art form. An art song is a piece of music that classically trained singers perform in small settings. The music is stripped down, so an orchestra isn't required; it's just a singer and a piano or guitar. The musicians perform and talk about the songs.
"They were written for people to perform for their family and friends in sort of a salon setting in Europe," Leubner says. "That was kind of where it became popular. ... That was the Netflix of the day."
Leubner founded the Denver Art Song Project in 2015 to promote professional art song performances and introduce new people to the genre through engaging performances and recorded music. It's since gone nonprofit and changed its name to Art Song Colorado to reach more of the state.
Denver Art Song's latest album, Our Last Songs, marks the group's last release in its current incarnation. The album lays out twelve art songs by old and new composers, with Leubner singing tenor over Mallory Bernstein's piano accompaniment. (Warning: If you are of a sensitive disposition, listening will probably, at the very least, make you lightly misty.)
"With this album, I just chose songs I wanted to do, and I kind of pieced it together over a couple of years with my pianist in between gigs," he says. "She has a lot of gigs and I have a lot of gigs, so we can only do it when we are in the same state together."
Our Last Songs marks a departure from the previous Denver Art Song album, Die schöne Müllerin, which included guitar played by producer Michael Bevers instead of piano. Die schöne Müllerin, a cycle of songs by Franz Schubert based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, tells the tale of a miller who falls in love with a girl in the woods, but she leaves him for a hunter and he kills himself in despair. It's not the most uplifting story, but the music is beautiful to listen to nonetheless.
"It's very rarely recorded with guitar, and so it was exciting to do something a little bit offbeat," Leubner says. "That's one of the guiding principles for us, is that we choose to do stuff that's just a little bit off the beaten path."
Although they are associated with classical music and opera, art songs are not necessarily "highbrow," nor are they a stuffy relic of the past. Composers are still turning out new songs, and two contemporary writers contributed songs that appear on Our Last Songs.
"Some of the songs of Simon and Garfunkel could fall into an art song category," Leubner says. "The poetry is really rich and beautiful. It's as rich and beautiful as something that was written a hundred years ago by a classical composer, and I think that that's a really special thing about it, that it's a very flexible genre for classical musicians."
Numerous metal bands have played interpretations of "Der Erlkönig," a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that depicts the death of a child being pursued by a demon. Yes, that's very metal, but Schubert set it to music first, 200 years ago. (For the record, Die schöne Müllerin is also quite metal.)
"It's pretty metal," Leubner says of "Der Erlkönig." "The first thing I think of is 'Enter Sandman,' by Metallica. It's like it even has the same kind of beat to it. … It also has that same kind of driving, almost metal feel in a piano part."
Our Last Songs is a bit of a misnomer, as Art Song Colorado is currently working on numerous projects, including a puppet show to accompany a performance revolving around French composers and another live performance revolving around women's suffrage in Grand Junction. A YouTube concert, "Marginalized Voices," includes a combination of poetry and music composed by cis women, LGBTQ, Jewish and Black composers.
"Now we are a nonprofit that can really support Colorado artists, which is exciting," Leubner says. "[Our Last Songs] is just me, but the next album is called Art Song Stars of Colorado. There are five different singers from Colorado, and they will be featured on it."
Art Song Colorado's releases will be accompanied by videos to help provide context to the music. One of those is "What Is an Art Song?"
"If you don't know what an art song is, you can watch this video," he says. "You'll hear a bunch of great singing; you'll learn what an art song is. And you can start becoming a fan, which is really what I'm trying to do."
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