Tom Herman

    Setting various texts and poems with moods ranging from dreamy-romantic to sorrowful to the reverence of the Latin Mass, composer Tom Herman has found the dream of a muse for his music—Broadway’s Rebecca Luker. The often-surprising melody lines are variously tender and intimate or soaringly joyful or meditative.  Versatile Rebecca Luker truly serves the material.  Happily, the wide-ranging melodies with some shimmering ascents and elastic lines also become a showcase for her strong and glorious, clear soprano voice.  Her chameleon-like performance proves her to be comfortably at home with each piece.  Her strengths include projecting a sense of awe in both the Mass and various love-struck romantic ruminations.  Rhapsodically, “Recuerdo” relishes a rush of memories of a heady night for two lovers, one of the five poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

    Not all is sweetness and light.  Addressed subjects include grieving and loss, both for specific people and times gone by.  Though they confront sorrow, the musical choices and interpretation keep the sad subject matter in a thoughtful mode, rather than drowning in melodramatic mawkish misery.  There’s a classical elegance here that makes feelings float rather than spurt.   

    Taking up more than one third of the album’s playing time (49:43), the Sanctus from the Mass is in five movements, just using the few lines over and over, so it’s in its own category.  It’s a matter of glorying in the glory (of the Lord and the Heaven-sent music and lovely, lithe Luker vocal sounds that swell and soar).


Journal of Singing

    Many modern art songs seem to be conceived more with musically astute listeners in mind rather than the average man or woman with little or no musical background. Exceptions tend to be those art songs that bear the influence of jazz or popular music; they usually rest fairly comfortably on the ear of just about any audience member. But when it comes to art songs that are more decidedly "classical" in nature, accessibility for the masses can be hard to find. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it is refreshing indeed to encounter serious art songs that can effectively engage the uninitiated listener, and such songs are abundant on this new collection from composer Tom Herman. One gets a sense of the straightforward directness of these songs from the striking photograph that adorns the cover of the album. In it, the luminous face of soprano Rebecca Luker (in glowing sepia tone) looks out with penetrating intensity as well as inviting warmth. Her singing is similarly vivid, and one cannot imagine these songs receiving more loving or assured attention. Nowhere in the liner notes does it say that any of these songs were written with Ms. Luker specifically in mind, but regardless of their specific genesis she manages to make them entirely her own.

    Tom Herman's wide ranging career has included various forays into the world of music theater, and that influence is evident in the melodiousness and theatricality of these songs. Herman also has an impressively eclectic taste in poetry and superb instincts for wrapping his texts in flattering and illuminating melodies that allow every syllable to be clearly heard and their truth fully conveyed. None of the music here is especially innovative, but neither is it predictable or cautious. More than anything, the music seems entirely right for whatever text is at hand, and Herman does not seem concerned with being impressive as much as expressive.

    The most intriguing of the three major works is The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and Other Songs of Love, which features eight widely disparate poems covering various aspects of love, from the reckless passion of young love to the heartbreak of losing a loved one. Herman begins in playful fashion with Edward Lear's whimsical classic "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat," and the composer manages to underscore both the poem's broad sense of fun as well as its disarmingly tender undercurrent. In stark contrast are two songs that explore the unique pain associated with the death of a loved one. Conrad Aiken's masterful "Music I Heard with You" is set with the solemnity of a gentle hymn that brings alive the text's aching grief. Edna St. Vincent Millay's "If I Should Learn in Some Quite Casual Way" approaches the same painful loss in very different fashion, by imagining how difficult it would be if someone learned of a loved one's death while in a public place (like a subway) where one would not be able to openly express shock and sorrow. Herman (as he explains in his liner notes) purposefully sets the singer's melody much lower than any of the other songs in order to evoke the sense of quiet desperation that the text requires. The melody is placed over relentless, mildly dissonant chords that suggest both the throbbing of the subway as well as the racing pulse of the singer-to utterly shattering effect. Among the other texts in the group is a whimsical poem by Herman himself which expresses affection with scientific precision, in lines like "The stars configured themselves well the hour you were born." There is also a poem in French, "Chanson" by Pierre Louys, from his Chansons de Bilitis, which has been attractive to many composers. There is something exceptionally touching about this text's expression of love that cannot be attributed to anything tangible like attractiveness, wealth, or charm. The speaker simply loves whom she loves for no discernible reason. Herman's music perfectly captures that "shrug of the shoulders" that flavors this and so many French texts.

    This impressive set is a tough act to follow, but there are plenty of memorable moments in Herman's set of four more texts by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The composer has set these poems with a certain sense of restraint, as though he trusts their eloquence and beauty and does not want his music getting in the way. The undeniable masterpiece among them is the set's finale, "Song of a Second April," in which the poet compares the present month of April to those of the past. Nothing is different except that the poet's loved one has died, and that loss renders meaningless all of the season's beauties. The poem reveals its ultimate sorrow only at the end, but Herman's music manages to hint at that sorrow with the deft use of gentle dissonance that just slightly darkens the song's lovely lyricism. As for Herman's Sanctus, the composer manages to underscore both the exuberance and wonder of this familiar text while managing to breathe refreshing life into it.

    These songs leave a deep, abiding impression on the listener, although that impact is certainly due in part to Rebecca Luker's eloquent singing. She is the kind of artist who brings out the very best in whatever she sings. In the hands of a lesser singer, these songs might not seem quite so distinguished. As heard here, they sound like the works of a master songwriter from whom we must hear more.

Musicals are a young man's sport these days.  Stamina, speed, wit, and good ol' fashioned gusto are needed to capture an audience's short attention span.  "Jack's Back!" fits the mold perfectly with an exciting cast, catchy songs, and script filled with witty repartee.  "Jack's Back!" feels like what would happen if "Monty Python" got into bed with Gilbert and Sullivan. . .Tom Herman has crafted some outstanding songs that are hilarious, smart and bubbly.