Two poets, eleven composers and thirty-two lovely voices
Two great American poets, set to music by a variety of modern composers, were the subjects of a concert last Saturday at Oakland’s St Paul’s Episcopal Church. Anthony Pasqua led the San Francisco Bay Area Chamber Choir through the diverse program, rendering hugely difficult harmonies into simple-sounding expressions that packed a wealth of nuance.
Centered on poems by Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings, the program was prettily tied together by Susan Gubernat, a poet and English professor whose pithy lecture notes prepared the audience for each section.
“Most of us encounter a few poems by e.e. cummings in high school when his quirky punctuation habits and odd spellings give us justification for our own idiosyncrasies and rebellions… I think the musicality of both poets is why so many composers choose to set them. But their lack of orthodoxy—not just of spelling and punctuation but of belief and of feeling—makes them true American originals.”
The vocal parts played leapfrog in Brian Holmes setting of cummings’ “in Just- spring,” playful and fitting the “hop-scotch and jump-rope” of the poem. Then Holmes took a different tack for “when god lets my body be,” with watery harmonies and gentle delivery, an easing in and out of corporeal sacredness.
After that warm-up came an extraordinary moment of soprano soloist and two singers on a dissonant drone, for Judith Weir’s “a blue true dream of sky.” The soloist, Kelly Mathyssen, sang in a high tessitura against mezzo Barbara Brown and alto Patricia Jennerjohn, whose undertow reminded one of Balkan discords. The choir rumbled in with denser thickets of sound.
The last poem of the first set, “as freedom is a breakfast food,” dealt with the commodification of freedom and the upending of natural order. Composer Ronald Perera built his piano score with the colorings and other-worldliness of Messiaen between vocal harmonies, a parallel to the curious binding of half-truths and opposites into wild truths of the poetry. Those piano entr’actes, performed by William García Ganz, were happily dissonant, a major mode turning some four-dimensioned corner into “hyper-major.” The simpler vocal part hung bright notes around a dark core, combining with piano into the lovely disjunction of a Kurt Weill song.
And then a set of Emily Dickinson poems, building on her rebellious sincerity with Samuel Barber’s gorgeous setting of “Let down the bars, O Death.” The SF Bay Choir (as they shorten their name) delivered up harmonies that were so lush they buzzed and burred in the high arched hall, a testament to their careful tuning and balance.
Gubernat remarked, “Most of her over 1700 poems, only 8 of which were published in her lifetime, challenged most of the conventions she had grown up with—conventions of religion, of women’s roles, of what it meant to be a poet. Dickinson might have lived a reclusive life, but… she was explosive on the page, a veritable volcano when it came to matters of sexual desire and doubt in a traditional divinity. She often looked death square in the face, and never flinched.”
Elliott Carter had his own intuitions on Dickinson, imbuing “Heart not so heavy as mine” with a fragile coolness and a multitude of lines. Then they wove back together into sudden harmonies on the last line of a stanza, “An anodyne so sweet,” and shifted to a spectral feeling for a lustrous finish.
Libby Larsen ended that set on Dickinson’s “I find my feet have further goals.” Though there was little concern for melody, she developed her material through lovely dyads, further separating into high highs and low lows. The singers built those intervals into wave actions, with vocalized “ah’s” to fill in parts, merging into full harmonies at the ends of phrases. Repeating the title line, they diminished to a soft and bitter finish, like the aftertaste of good ale. (And throughout the evening, their diminuendos were big money moments.)
And then a surprise treat: Michael Horvit, a composer and Professor emeritus from Texas, was on hand for the performance of his 1973 setting of two Dickinson poems for choir and electronics. Invited to address the audience, he spoke of his admiration for the poet, and of “the compactness of her lines, the power of her imagery.” And then went on to describe his early electronic experiment. “Electronic music of the 1970s went in two directions. One was imitative of traditional instruments. The other was idiomatic of the electronic means, and that is what I used.”
“I heard a fly buzz when I died” opened with the hiss of empty radio space, and then a long swooping wolf-whistle of am radio bending down into mouth harp and down again into the pure slurs of whale song. Pasqua, listening through an ear bud for his cues (as this was before the days of click tracks), brought his voices in with traditional harmonies. But the text they sang still has power to shock.
For Dickinson’s sly and courtly “Because I could not stop for death/ He kindly stopped for me,” Horvit used an electronic tolling like church bells, hugely dimensioned into deep undertones, with voices adding a gravitas like Gregorian chant. This alternated with interludes of drier electronics, a “pock pock pock” of arpeggios.
Gubernat introduced the final set: “When I realized the chorus would be doing Peter Shickele’s (better known as PDQ Bach) versions of Cummings, I thought, now that’s appropriate: who more irreverent toward traditional music, yet so knowledgeable about the classics… Quirky composer meets quirky poet.”
“dominic has” was light hearted with short bitten-off words, while “dim/i/nu/tiv/e” employed tight and gorgeously twisted jazz harmonies from the back chorus like a Manhattan Transfer moment. Gubernat went on to describe the third: “I think one of my favorite poems of all time is the simple yet profound “maggie and milly and molly and may” which reminds us of how… the natural world will always reflect back to us the state of our own minds and hearts.” Here Shickele created a complex weave of light and playful lines, like the Bach he was famed for re-invigorating.
After Vincent Persichetti, a good pairing with cummings that used small intervals and careful echoes, came anther high point, David C. Dickau’s “in time of daffodils.” Here they filled St. Paul’s with lots of bass (somewhat toned down in the regular chorus), big forceful arcs, and a last chord that was as gentle as it was huge in breadth.
in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how
in time of lilacs who proclaim
the aim of waking is to dream,
remember so(forgetting seem)
in time of roses(who amaze
our now and here with paradise)
forgetting if,remember yes
in time of all sweet things beyond
whatever mind may comprehend,
remember seek (forgetting find)
and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me
This choir has a long tradition of thoughtful and experimental programming, sung with care and feeling.
Photo below is of members of the SF Bay Choir, courtesy of their website.