“Songs of Life, Love and Death” is the first of five CDs in which California composer Mark Abel displays his original and provocative art song style, which blends elements of classical, rock and jazz into a seamless whole. “Songs,” dating from 2006, has been followed by “Journey Long, Journey Far”; the 2012 Delos release “The Dream Gallery,” Abel’s first with an acoustic orchestra; "Terrain of the Heart," a second Delos CD released in February 2014; and "Home Is a Harbor," also on Delos. The latter, released in March 2016, is a vehicle for Abel's first opera.
"Songs" is a striking meld of poetry and music powered by three high-caliber sopranos from the San Francisco area – Katy Stephan, Elizabeth Eshleman and Karen Thomson Hall.
One of the CD’s most striking and heartfelt features is the “memorial” set that leads it off. "One Long Peace" is built around a poem written by a childhood friend of Abel’s mother after she took her own life in England in 1991. "Mystic Brave Bird" is a tribute to his best friend of three decades, Christian Osborne, a musician of great gifts who played with John Lennon while still in his teens but died in obscurity in Los Angeles in 2004. Abel says of Osborne: “He was an extremely talented and charismatic guy whose unflagging and often solitary dedication to his art was a great example to everyone who knew him.”
As for his settings here of the great poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Pablo Neruda, Abel observes: “Many of us who came of age during the ‘60s, when so much of the inherited culture was tossed out the window, missed out on the joys of poetry. It was terribly stimulating to make the belated acquaintance of these artists and, years later, to feel them inspiring my muse and helping take it to a higher level.”
Stephan, an uncommonly emotive vocalist equally respected as a concert soprano and cabaret singer/songwriter, gives powerful, full-out performances on “One Long Peace” and the Rilke cycle. Eshleman, who has taught at Mills College in Oakland for many years, brings a bright sparkle and pristine sweep to the seven-song Neruda set, subtitled “The Girl Made of Wood.” Hall’s rendition of “Mystic Brave Bird” is memorable for its pathos and commitment.
"With its harmonic and structural complexity, the music of Mark Abel appeals first to the listener's intellect, but attention to the interplay between lyric and accompaniment gradually reveals the profound underlying emotionality of this music. Mr. Abel takes us on a journey not only to fundamental human emotions -- but also to a cathartic response to these emotions."
Paul Hertzog -- film soundtrack composer and music educator, Los Angeles
"I grow fonder of these pieces the more I absorb them and get used to the vocabulary. I grew to love the idea of alternative classical, and I've even realized that your synthesis of electronic and acoustic elements is something I have been looking for without knowing it....I keep going back to the Neruda cycle; it's very evocative of a particular time and place.....You're on to something. I want to hear more."
Bob Graham -- former chief fine arts editor, San Francisco Chronicle
"In his Songs of Life, Love and Death, Mark Abel's attractive melodies and dramatic, vividly realized digital orchestrations show a composer delighting in the materials of his craft. These pieces are performed by three accomplished singers who are at home with the lyricism -- and ultimate optimism -- of this music."
Ann Callaway -- composer, Berkeley, Ca.