Tsunami Books hosts a performance of “art songs” — poetry set to music by famous composers — produced by Laura Wayte and featuring Washington tenor Brendan Tuohy and Eugene organist and pianist Julia Brown

(Above: Producer Laura Wayte, center, meets with tenor Brendan Tuohy and pianist Julia Brown, who will perform “art songs” in a special appearance at Tsunami Books. Photos by Randi Bjornstad)

By Randi Bjornstad

“Songs at Tsunami,” a series of performances of “art songs” that Eugene soprano Laura Wayte inaugurated last fall, resumes at 5 p.m. on Feb. 25 at Tsunami Books, This time sung by tenor Brendan Tuohy accompanied by pianist Julia Brown.

Tenor Brendan Tuohy draws on his own "itinerant" life as a singer for his performance at Tsunami Books
Tenor Brendan Tuohy draws on his own “itinerant” life as a singer for his performance at Tsunami Books

“I feel sort of selfish,” Tuohy confessed at his first rehearsal with Brown a few days before the performance.

“It’s very rare to have the opportunity to do a recital like this,” he said. “It’s the perfect setting, creating an intimacy between the singer and the audience, and it allows for storytelling. When you dress it up and put a tux on it in a larger place, it’s colder — it’s just not the same.”

Tuohy has performed in the past with the Eugene Opera and just spent two months in Europe auditioning for possible appointments with musical organizations there.

“When I was here in the fall doing ‘Béatrice and Bénédict’ with Eugene Opera, Laura (Wayte) brought me by Tsunami and showed me what it would be like to perform here,” he said. “My mom is a retired librarian — the idea of singing here among all these books made me feel right at home.”

That’s the fundamental purpose of “art song” performance, Wayte agreed.

“As a genre, ‘art songs’ are poetry set to music by classically trained composers for performance by classically trained singers,” she said. “There’s no set form, like chorus and verse — the composer just takes the poem and sets it to music the way he or she interprets its meaning personally. And the singer interprets both the music and the words in the same way.”

That’s how she came up with the idea, as a way to give vocal performers more chances to sing in what she calls an intimate recital setting.

“I call it chamber music for voice,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing people used to do in ‘big houses’ for centuries, and there’s been reams of music written especially for that purpose, something to showcase one voice and one instrument, usually piano.”

Art songs exist in many languages — among them English, French, German, Russian, Spanish — and the singers Wayte engages for “Songs at Tsunami” perform them in the original language, allowing a maximum of interpretation of both words and music.

“Each singer chooses a theme — there would be no way I could tell them what would mean something to them, either in poetry or composition,” she said.

Tuohy chose a theme exploring the lives of itinerant workers, about which many composers — many of them who fit that description themselves — wrote music.

His hour-long performance is divided into four sets, including several pieces by Austrian composer Franz Schubert, who straddled the classical and romantic periods in music, a number of French “songs of travel,” as well as art songs by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak and the most modern of the group, British composer Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Vaughan Williams.

That gives the line-up a rich variation, which he said encompasses his emotions about his own somewhat itinerant singing life.

“Singers like me have a somewhat itinerant lifestyle, always on the move between study and performance, so it is easy for me to understand the feelings of the composers and poets,” he said. “This is kind of a rare lifestyle, doing what we want to do but also experiencing both joy and loneliness.”

Brendan Tuohy and Julia Brown perform together for the first time in "Songs at Tsunami"
Brendan Tuohy and Julia Brown perform together for the first time in “Songs at Tsunami”

Tuohy and Brown came together for this show by way of Wayte’s recommendation.

Singers and accompanists who don’t know each other take a risk when they agree to perform together, Brown said.

“In this case, I had heard Brendan (Tuohy) sing, and I was very impressed, but you never know how two people will be able to work together,” she said. “But from the beginning, everything just clicked.”

Brown, a virtuoso on organ and harpsichord as well as piano, will accompany Tuohy on a 1915 American-made Kranich & Bach baby grand piano given to Wayte after she performed in a house concert last summer.

“I had come up with the idea for this series, but the piano at Tsunami wasn’t up to the task for this kind of music, so when I performed I told my audiences of my plan and asked if anyone knew of a piano I could afford,” she said. “I also contacted all the piano tuners and salespeople I could think of.”

She was overwhelmed by the generosity of the man who donated the piano.

“After the house concert, where my last piece was ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ he told me that when his own daughters were little, he used to play that for them every night on a 9-foot 6-inch Bosendorfer grand piano that he owned at that time, and my song brought back all those memories,” Wayte said. “Then he said he had the Kranich & Bach in storage, and he wanted to donate it.”

A local piano tuner kindly donated much of his time for refurbishing and tuning the instrument, and it now occupies the performance area near the stage at Tsunami Books.

“The reason I approached (owner) Scott Landfield about using Tsunami for this series is that he has such a following of people who adore poetry and acoustic music,” Wayte said. “And he hosts so many arts events, from poetry slams to book readings to musical performance.”

More accustomed to singing that producing, Wayte nonetheless has enjoyed putting the "Songs at Tsunami series together
More accustomed to singing that producing, Wayte nonetheless has enjoyed putting the “Songs at Tsunami series together

Much as she enjoys putting on “Songs at Tsunami,” Wayte admits that not being on the stage herself during the series gives her a twinge.

“It’s terrible,” she said with a smile. “It’s hard to get used to being the producer instead of the performer, especially because I love art songs so much. But I’ve been able to find wonderful people to bring them here, so that’s my role this time.”

The series continues on the fourth Saturday of each month through June.

Songs at Tsunami

When: 5 p.m. on Feb. 25

Where: Tsunami Books, 2585 Willamette St.

Tickets: $10, available at the door

Information: 541-345-8986

Randi Bjornstad

Has more than 30 years' journalism experience after a previous stint as a land-use planner. Got first rejection slip at age 11, but the editor wrote an encouraging note. Lives in Eugene, Ore., with husband-and-photographer Paul Carter, adorable dog Tallulah and quirky cats Pearl, Audrey, Garbo, Harry and Ozma.

randi has 175 posts and counting.See all posts by randi

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