In "Simple Songs," a setting of eight familiar poems by Emily Dickinson, Elam Ray Sprenkle has written a song cycle that may be a little masterpiece.
"Simple Songs," which was performed last night at the Baltimore Museum of Art by soprano Elizabeth Lawrence and pianist Eric Machanic, is like the poems it sets: simple but artful, tasteful but emotionally fearless. Sprenkle, who teaches at the Peabody Conservatory and hosts a local radio program, can make a descending motif in "I died for beauty" heartbreaking; evoke the spiritually inebriated swagger of "I taste a liquor never brewed"; and suggest the peripatetic, bittersweet beauties of "Because I could not stop for Death." Sprenkle reminds me of Benjamin Britten, who had a similar gift for appreciating great poetry with touching music. The songs were beautifully performed by Lawrence, a good singer, and by Machanic, a superb pianist.
Both artists, who are in their middle 20s, are part of the trio Sonus, which was one of the three winning ensembles in the 1992 Baltimore Chamber Music Awards competition. The third musician is the somewhat older flutist L. Billie Witte, who has abilities below those of her colleagues and who produced embarrassing results in Leonard Bernstein's "Halil" for flute and piano, in Vincent Persichetti's "Parable XII" for solo piccolo and in works in which the flute was part of the ensemble.