Katherine Jolly’s Preach Sister, Preach Foregrounds Women’s Voices & Climate Change

Preach Sister, Preach, a new album of vocal works by Evan Williams, Katherine Bodor, and Evan Mack on Navona Records, features soprano Katherine Jolly, pianist Emily Yap Chua, and a small ensemble led by Joshua Harper. The songs are a timely contribution to the repertoire, with two cycles using texts by women, and the central work, Absent an Adjustment, highlighting the critical dangers that face our environment today.

Evan Williams found inspiration in the poetry of Emily Dickinson for his eponymous ten-movement cycle, Emily’s House. These songs have an arioso-like quality, which is well-suited to Dickinson’s style of writing: bursts of declamation and dialogue interspersed with periods of pensive reflection. The pointed and conspiratorial, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?“ is particularly effective. Throughout the work, Williams frames the vocal line carefully with cascades of delicate solo lines for the pianist, particularly in the cycle’s final movement, “The Shelter.” Jolly shifts from one scene to the next–from “Wild Nights!” to “Dawn”–seamlessly; an apt storyteller with flawless diction and an appealing tone.

Evan Williams--Photo by Eric Snoza, SnoStudios

Evan Williams–Photo by Eric Snoza, SnoStudios

From the foreboding trills of the opening measures, Katherine Bodor’s Absent an Adjustment does not seek to soften the severity of David Wallace-Wells’ words. In his 2017 article for New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” Wallace-Wells reports, “Many sober-minded scientists, few of them inclined to alarmism, have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion: No plausible program of emissions reduction alone can prevent climate disaster.” He goes on to chastise the country and the culture that allows such a disaster to proceed unhindered. Wallace-Wells’ text, while clearly sounding an alarm, may appear measured and rational on the page, but underneath these blunt statements lies a harsh and disturbing reality–“the prospect of our own annihilation…” as it were. The composer notes, “I agree with [Wallace-Wells]; we are not alarmed enough [about climate change].” Bodor brings a visceral sense of panic to the text with an unyieldingly high vocal part, breathless, arpeggiated punctuations, and appropriately driving strings that effectively heighten the dire warnings of the text. The bright timbre of Jolly’s voice and the ease of her upper register, accustomed to singing Zerbinetta’s roulades, makes easy work of the unrelenting high tessitura of the vocal line. The tone is appropriately alarming and brings sufficient urgency to the text without dissolving into hysterics.

The disc closes with Evan Mack’s cycle Preach Sister, Preach, a collection of 14 quotes from famous women beginning with Simone de Beauvoir’s dictum, “This has always been a man’s world, and none of the reasons that have been offered in explanation have seemed adequate. One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Each movement is titled after the name of the woman whose words are quoted, and the list of notables includes such luminaries as Gloria Steinem, Ann Landers, Lucille Ball, and Ellen DeGeneres. Tongue-in-cheek succinctness characterizes a number of these movements. The “Jeopardy” theme music is softly played by pianist Emily Yap Chua as Jolly quotes Lizz Winstead, saying, ‘I think…therefore I am single!”

Katherine Jolly--Photo by Tanya Rosen Jones

Katherine Jolly–Photo by Tanya Rosen Jones

Mack shows his clear mastery of vocal writing in this cycle, as well as his intelligent use of the texts. He notes, “I started looking at hundreds of quotes by famous women about women. There were so many brilliant (and funny) quotes that I could have probably composed three more song cycles…I treated every quote with the utmost care and musically gave a nod to either the person, the time period, or an extramusical reference to the text itself – all to celebrate these iconic women and their empowering message.” The song “Tina Fey” is an excellent illustration of Mack’s approach: it is a jazzy, confident, comedic reflection (“If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important role of beauty, which is:…”) that bursts into an explosion of coloratura fireworks at the conclusion (“Who cares?”). Jolly sings Preach, Sister, Preach with aplomb and charm, accompanied by Chua’s sensitive playing. If Mack does create another cycle from those hundreds of quotes by women, he should look no further than this phenomenal duo for inspiration.

Preach Sister, Preach is an excellent recording of contemporary vocal works by three talented American composers. While shedding light on a number of important issues of our time–bringing women’s voices to the forefront and challenging the status quo approach to climate change–it manages to preach without being “preachy” and draws the listener in with a diversity of musical styles and outstanding performances.