It was high time for Twin Cities mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski to make an album. She has won and placed in prestigious international competitions, performed numerous operas and recitals, premiered several new works and sung on world stages. In 2017, she stepped in for an ailing Susanna Phillips when the superstar soprano had to cancel her Schubert Club dates. Earlier this year, she won a McKnight Artist Fellowship. She has a lush, beautiful voice and a blooming career as a solo artist.
On Sunday, Osowski will release her debut CD, “Haunted Blue,” at the Dakota. It’s not what most people who know her will expect. No Schubert or Schumann, Libby Larsen or Dominick Argento. Osowski has recorded 13 original songs by composer and jazz pianist Jeremy Walker. Art songs. Jazz art songs.
The two first worked together in 2016, when Consortium Carissimi commissioned Walker to write five original songs for their fall concert. “Someone got sick, so the solo got sent to me a few days before the performance,” Osowski said. “Jeremy and I found a kindred musical experience working with each other. I said, ‘Hey, will you write some more songs for me?’”
In 2017, they performed the new songs at Crooners, some with tenor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu. Walker kept writing. Two songs on “Haunted Blue” are from the original Consortium Carissimi commission, reworked. One is a poem by Walt Whitman, another a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Several feature lyrics by Twin Cities poet Greg Foley. Anthony Cox is on bass throughout, and Wondemagegnehu joins Osowski for two duets.
We spoke with Osowski on Thursday afternoon. This interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: What exactly is an art song?
Clara Osowski: I’ve been wrestling with this because I’ve had to think about it now a lot. I think it’s just sung poetry. It’s not necessarily a classical tradition. I don’t think it’s just a Western tradition, either. I have some friends who excel in Arabic classical music, and their main thing is words and a melody. That’s pretty much all we need for art song. It’s musical poetry.
MP: What makes the songs on “Haunted Blue” jazz?
CO: There’s so much flexibility. Jeremy has written out my vocal line, but he improvises the entire time. It’s never the same, and it’s terrifying at times. [Laughs.] You have to have the right musical skills. I have to be able to hear when he puts down the chord that I need for the vocal line. Sometimes he hides it really well. It’s super fluid. And then there are the harmonies. I’m not used to singing sevenths – unless I’m singing Copland, or Ives, at times.
MP: You’re known for art songs. Is this a normal career path for a mezzo-soprano?
CO: No! Totally not normal. We’re trained in the opera world. There’s a lot of expectation and rigidity in the opera world today, even down to what you’re supposed to wear for an audition. We’re lucky in Minnesota, because we do a lot of new opera, but so much of the opera world is “Beverly Sills sang it this way, and this is the appropriate, traditional way, and you will not stray from that idea.” I kind of recoiled from that.
MP: Why this album, and why now?
CO: I’ve always had an appreciation and a fondness for jazz. But I’m a little afraid to jump right into singing [jazz] standards. They’ve been recorded and done so well. Also, this type of music allows me to be unique right away, without any expectations of “Oh, that sounds like Billie [Holiday]” or “That sounds like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.” It’s unique enough to make a statement: Jeremy’s music and Clara’s voice. It’s nice to make that statement without any preconceived assumptions about what that’s going to sound like or what the audience is going to feel. I think that’s where live music is going.
MP: Talk a bit about the concept, “Haunted Blue.”
CO: There are so many different ways to be haunted. You wake up at three in the morning and you’re haunted by your dream. Or you remember something and you’re haunted that way, good or bad. It’s a state of being mesmerized, or in a state of flux. It’s about being a haunted person, a haunted soul. It’s a little out there, but all the songs have a theme.
Song cycles are huge in the classical world, but this has also been done in the jazz world – like [John Coltrane’s] “A Love Supreme.” It makes things cohesive in a very creative way.
MP: This is an interesting evolutionary step for both you and Jeremy.
CO: Jeremy had instincts, and I had instincts, and they lined up, and we were willing to say – OK, if we believe in this, then someone else might. This is fun. This is actually really contemporary. If I can get behind it, someone else might, too.
To be very frank, I’m embracing this. Jeremy played “I Like the Sunrise,” an Ellington tune, for my McKnight audition, and then I won a McKnight. So I don’t take this lightly. I think there’s super, super value in embracing all styles and genres as a musician. So I’m willing to sing and perform this as much as I am Schubert. I’m excited about it.
We’re on the cusp of something. People are identifying with words so much, for whatever reason. Whether we need to be heard at this moment, or we need to feel we’re not alone, words – however they’re being presented in music – are what people are latching onto.
MP: I’ve heard the album, and one thing I noticed is you don’t get any help with the melody. Jeremy is doing his thing and [bassist] Anthony Cox is doing his thing.
CO: Jeremy does a really good job of voicing roots of the chord. Or when it’s my turn to make noise, he’s good about keeping the area of the piano consistent. If I can see Anthony’s body language, I know when to tag off of him. I’m getting better at this. It did not come easy, but it really just comes down to musicianship skills.
There’s some sort of communication between Jeremy and me. I don’t know if it’s because we both like [John] Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. He’s a big Duke [Ellington] fan, and he’s been listening to his songs for so, so long and knows more about that than I do.
I think part of it is we just have a similar language, even though we’ve come up in two different styles. And I trust him with all the words I can find to throw at him.
Starts tonight (Friday) at the Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: “The Price of Everything.” After Njideka Akunyili Crosby watches one of her paintings sell at auction for $900,000 – she’d sold it two years earlier for way less – she remarks wryly, “A flipper bought it.” Today, works of art are assets, and auction houses are trading floors. In this fascinating film, director Nathaniel Kahn (“My Architect”) pulls back the curtain on the red-hot art market. He speaks with artists (including Crosby, Jeff Koons and George Condo), dealers, auction house bigwigs, critics and collectors, like the hugely successful and enormously wealthy Stefan Edlis, who laughs a lot. Art is selling for jaw-dropping prices. Are we in an art crisis? A bubble? Does it matter if we let the marketplace decide who’s an artist? Should we care if great art disappears from public view into private collections? FMI including trailer, times and tickets.
Tonight through Sunday at the Cowles: James Sewell Ballet Fall Season. In a program called “Dynamic Rhythms,” JSB will present two repertory classics and the world premiere of a collaboration with choreographer Darrius Strong. Company favorite “Moving Works” is an intricate contemporary ballet. The poignant “Appalachia Waltz” uses Texas fiddle music as the backdrop for expressing ideas of relationship and community. The brand-new “I See You” fuses ballet and hip-hop to reflect on vulnerability and humanity. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($20-35).
Saturday at Hamline’s Sundin Music Hall: 88s at Sundin: Ivan Konev in Concert. Born in Ukraine, educated in Moscow, at Hamline and the U of M, pianist Konev has a new solo CD coming out. Meanwhile, Sundin has a new piano series starting up. Konev will launch the series with a CD release concert of music by John Corigliano, Igor Yakushenko, Valentin Silvestrov and others. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15/8).
Sunday on your teevee: Minnesota Original. The third broadcast episode of MNO’s ninth season spotlights dance, fashion design, hip-hop – and animal training. Dancer/choreographer Laurie Van Wieren creates site-specific improvisational works in spaces large and small. Fashion designer Joy Telken finds inspiration for her Joynoelle line in fungi and lichen, space and the solar system. Forty-one years ago, William Berloni trained the first Sandy for the original Broadway production of “Annie.” He’s been an animal trainer ever since. (P.S. All of his animals are rescues.) Among the many responsibilities of running the hip-hop collective Doomtree, Lazerbeak finds time to make his next solo album. Watch Sunday at 6 p.m. on TPT 2 or view all four stories online.
Tuesday at the Minnesota History Center: Wing Young Huie “Chinese-ness: The Meanings of Identity and the Nature of Belonging” book launch. You don’t have to be Chinese to experience “Chinese-ness.” Street photographer, community builder and McKnight Distinguished Artist Wing Young Huie draws on his own life – growing up in Duluth to Chinese immigrant parents and feeling confused; traveling to China for the first time and feeling like a foreigner – to explore issues of race, authenticity, cultural uncertainty and fitting in. For part of this sprawling, questing, frank and enlightening book, he photographed Chinese men whose lives he could have lived, then had them photograph him wearing their clothes. He’s a very engaging speaker. 7 p.m. FMI. Free.