Wednesday, November 4, 2009

VC: Sing in the Seasons--Reprise

"Only connect" is the aphoristic motto of E.M. Forster's beloved novel, Howard's End. The image of Anthony Hopkins' gaze at the end of the Merchant & Ivory film still lingers in my memory as a classic example of an actor's silent expression expressing more than many words could.

I've already written about the Chorale's opening concert, "Sing in the Seasons." If you've read any of my other posts then my interest in making connections--between & across artists, genres, periods & styles--should be obvious.

The main reason we are reprising this opening concert is because many audience members and singers alike asked me to just do it again. I've never done a "back-by-popular-demand" performance this way, as my polymath wont is variety, newness, and adventure.

And I've never led a more well-received concert. Period. This program of varied songs with texts connecting to the seasons of the year was/is a motley mix I wasn't sure would work. The variety, eclecticism, and unexpectedness--the surprise of it--all contributed to its having universal appeal at each of the initial 3 performances. So we're doing it again this Sunday, November 8, at 5 pm, at 2nd Presbyterian (7305 Hampton Blvd), Norfolk. No tickets necessary. Just come and hear it!

Without analyzing too much, I want to make a few connections as to why I think it worked as well as it did. The program in performance proved to be better balanced than it appeared on paper. I quipped in my pre-concert "meet the music" chat that if a conducting student had brought this program to me I would have told him he was crazy! A modernist 9/11 elegy between an American standard and "Danny Boy?" Renaissance madrigals juxtaposed with pop-influenced Shakespeare songs? Impressionist miniatures by Debussy & a little-known Nordic cousin named Lundvik? And what about the unpronounceable Nordic name Jaakko Mäntyjärvi? How do these disparate pieces fit together?

Yet the melting pot--or melting cauldron--I should say, referring to the Mäntyjärvi work, the performance of which epitomized the program's reception. "Double, Double, Toil and Trouble," the Witches' chorus from Shakespeare's Scottish play was offered as a Halloween trick & treat, and was greeted with laughter, surprise, and spirited applause each concert, as it rounded off the eclectic fall season. The program opens with a muted arrangement of the Kozma/Mercer standard, "Autumn Leaves." Dominick Argento's piquant elegy to 9/11, a setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet LXIV, followed. The Argento was paired with Joe Flummerfelt's meltingly beautiful arrangement of Danny Boy. That pairing could not have worked better in concert. The Witches Chorus concluded the opening quarter.

I've already written about the connection of the Jewish composers on the program--Autumn Leaves, though known in the US as a Johnny Mercer standard, would not exist were it not for Joseph Kozma's music. Kozma was a Hungarian Jew who fled the Nazis for Paris, where his life and career had a 2nd act as a song-writer and film composer. The other book-end to the program is Gershwin's "Summertime." One of the most popular songs of all time was written by a NY Jew of Russian descent to a tune based on a Ukrainian folk-song that somehow captures the spirit of African-Americans in South Carolina in the wake of Reconstruction! Talk about making connections! And they don't stop there. Todd Duncan, the great baritone who created the role of Porgy (who would go on to a distinguished teaching career--I am proud to be among his vocal grand-children, as one of my teachers, Marvin Keenze, was one of Duncan's finest students) described his audition for Gershwin:

"Here I was a negro man singing for a New York Jew this old, Italian aria!"

Ground-breaking, boundary-bending, category-defying, indeed. Only connect.

Another connection to make where Jewish composers are concerned is to the English composer of Italian-Jewish descent, Gerald Finzi. Finzi's rhapsodic setting of Robert Bridges' "Nightingales" closes the section devoted to spring. The final quarter of the program, themed around summer, opens with a pair of songs by Finzi's elder contemporary, Frederick Delius. Both composers have ties to the English Musical Renaissance begun by Elgar and Holst, and epitomized by the pastoral, romantic music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. The English pastoral sound is a not-too-distant cousin of French impressionism, and the influence of Claude Debussy can be heard in many of the works on our program.

Debussy described music as "a dream from which the veils have been lifted." The effect of an actor's silence--the impressions one gets from observing a great actor, like Anthony Hopkins, in the anecdote above--can be more powerful than emotions "expressed" at heightened pitch, volume, or force. Rather than "express" an emotion, or "represent" it, impressionism sought to convey a fluid sense of motion (picture a classic impressionist painting by Monet, for example, where the edges are blurred, and the colors blend and merge seamlessly together). Thus the canvases (and the scores) appear to be in motion themselves. By representing such a fluid process, Debussy attempted to convey "not the expression of feeling, but the feeling itself."

I think he achieved his aim, and his impressionist miniatures for a capella chorus are prismatic gems through which one hears the colors of his musical canvas. Debussy was famously influenced by the American painter James Whistler, and it was the latter's Nocturne in Blue and Grey that solidified Debussy's path towards creating musical equivalents to "the experiment of finding the different combinations possible within a single color."

The possibility of different combinations around a single color are explored in the Delius songs (themselves nocturnes), Hildor Lundvik's impressionist triptych (actually called "Nocturnes") and among other works on our program, Adolphus Hailstork's "Nocturne."

Adolphus' evocative work uses modernist techniques to evoke the atmosphere of a summer night. The individual sections of the choir--seemingly at random--hum and "buzz" short motives that intertwine and create a sound world reminiscent of a summer night outdoors amidst the stars and sounds of nature. The beautiful poem is declaimed by the sopranos, like a serenade atop the natural accompaniment of the insects & night-sounds. Hailstork's Nocturne was among the concert's highlights.

Other highlights of our eclectic cauldron of seasonal songs include three Shakespeare songs of Matthew Harris. The first two are juxtaposed with Renaissance madrigals by the Bard's contemporary, Thomas Morley. "O Mistress Mine" and "It was a lover and his lass" are both pop-influenced ballads. Connecting elements of the madrigal with a dash of impressionism, filtered through a contemporary, pop/rock/jazz sensibility, Matt has written a number of striking, original, and ear-ticklingly memorable songs. The penultimate song on the program, the one that sets up "Summertime" is a romping, choral hay-ride. "When daffodils begin to peer" has a new-grass twang to it, and sounds like what you might get if you combined a country tune with a madrigal texture set for a professional chamber chorus.

The avant-garde composer, John Cage asked that the line "we connect Satie to Thoreau" be spoken at the performance of many of his songs.

We're not performing any of Cage's songs on this program, but we've got a connection through some of the "chance" happenings in Hailstork's piece. And it's easy to connect Satie to impressionism, and though we're not offering any Satie (since he didn't compose any choral works), I think that most eccentric of French artistes would smilingly approve.

I think one of the most important connections with this (and all great) music is also the most obvious.

Great music simply connects us--to our emotions & experience, our memories & dreams. Music connects our minds to our hearts and souls, and ultimately connects us to each other. I hope you'll connect with what the Chorale is doing.

Come. Hear. Outstanding. Rewarding. Artists. Listen. Engage.

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