Sirbaugh gives swan song to an old friend

Nora Sirbaugh, professor of music, described her relationship with Stephen Peet, her late longtime accompanist and collaborator, as a “musical marriage.” In the program notes for her faculty recital Saturday night, she mentioned that after their last recital together, Peet said the two had never performed anything by Johannes Brahms together. As Sirbaugh wrote in the program notes, “Stephen, here is your Brahms.”

Sirbaugh, known to the students in her vocal studio as “Dr. S,” opened her Saturday night faculty recital with Brahms’ “Vier ernste Ges?nge,” literally, four serious songs, an emotionally-charged set dedicated to Peet, who died in 2005. The first three pieces in the set dealt with death. Even without the aid of the program notes, which contained translated lyrics, Sirbaugh communicated the dark and grave content of the words, Old Testament verses translated into German, coming close to tears as she did.

Sirbaugh’s harrowing mezzo-soprano voice, a dark and vulnerable instrument, turned uplifting and hopeful as the third piece, “O Tod, wie bitter bist du,” (O death, how bitter are you) shifted into the last of the set, “Wenn ich mit Menschen.”

Where the previous three pieces were taken from Ecclesiastes, the last was taken from Corinthians and dealt with love. As she sang the piece, she was suddenly animated, and with uplifted hands, she sang the German equivalent of, “Now there remains faith, hope, love, these three, but love is the greatest among them.”

Sirbaugh’s second set was similar thematically, but it came with a language change from German to French. The second piece of the set, “La Belle au Bois,” told the story of a sleeping beauty, who, after being awakened by a prince, chooses eternal slumber “rather than to live and suffer.” Sirbaugh smiled sadly as she delivered the final line of the piece, “at the threshold of the seven funeral turrets of Sleeping Beauty.”

The audience, a collection of Sirbaugh’s students, family and fellow faculty members, couldn’t possibly have been prepared for the second half of her performance, a decidedly lighter side of Sirbaugh, given the dark nature of the first half.

Before performing “The Gnu,” by Michael Flanders and Donald Swan, Sirbaugh addressed her students.

“I want to dedicate this first English song to all my diction students, and you’ll know why when we start,” Sirbaugh joked, drawing confused laughter.

Their confusion was assuaged as Sirbaugh sang, “G-know, g-know, g-know, I’m a G-nu,” drawing laughter as she sang the story about meeting a gnu while pronouncing all the silent letters (K-know wuh-who’s wuh-who).

The last piece in the set was “Vespers,” the first Christopher Robin poem, set to music by Harold Fraser-Simson. The piece, about a boy struggling through his bedtime prayers, contained easily the most adorable moment of the night. Sirbaugh yawned as the song ended, and even tiptoed off the stage after the song had ended and Christopher Robin was asleep in bed, stopping only to wake up her accompanist, Kathleen Milly, whose head had drooped down onto the piano.

Sirbaugh came out for the final set with a giggle, followed by fellow professors of music Suzanne Hickman, Robert Guarino, Mark Moliterno and Joanna Chao.

Sirbaugh both began and ended with Brahms, though her final set was radically different from her first: Sirbaugh chose to perform a selection of Brahms’ “Liebeslieder,” love songs.

Sirbaugh, Hickman, a soprano, Guarino, a tenor, and Moliterno, a bass-baritone, formed a quartet, while Chao joined Milly at the piano, as they charged through the short pieces in numerical order. The songs were sweet trifles until the quartet took a collective deep breath before suddenly turning up the volume and singing, “Nein, es ist nicht auszukommen mit den Leuten!” (No, there’s just no getting along with people!”)

The final piece on the program was Number 15 – “Zum Schluss” (To the close), from Brahms’ “Neue (New) Liebeslieder.” The lyrics contained a message of healing from creativity.

The quartet wasn’t done, however. Sirbaugh and the rest of the gang came out for an encore, another “Liebeslied.”

“The words say,” Sirbaugh explained, “‘like a rushing stream, we give you a hundred thousand kisses.'”

Her students, family and co-faculty members returned the favor as she left the Mildred & Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall to a round of cheers.

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Myles Ma