Above: Walt Whitman
~ Author: Oberon
Wednesday October 17th, 2018 - Music inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman was on the program at Carnegie Hall tonight as the American Symphony Orchestra commenced their 2018-2019 season. Maestro Leon Botstein was on the podium, two very fine young singers - soprano Angel Blue and baritone Edward Nelson - sang music of Schreker and Weill, and, after the interval, an engaging performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony prominently featured the Bard Festival Chorale (James Bagwell, director) along with the two vocal soloists.
Tonight's concert provided my first opportunity to experience the Sea Symphony live; my recording of it (the Telarc, conducted by Robert Spano with superb singing from Christine Goerke and Brett Polegato) has been played many times over.
Above: soprano Angel Blue and baritone Edward Nelson
The concert commenced with Othmar Schoeck's Trommelschläge (1915), a choral setting of a German translation of Whitman's "Beat! Beat! Drums!" It's mostly written for unison voices, with occasional forays into polyphony. Although the chorus for whom this work was originally written rebelled against it as un-singable, the premiere in Zurich at the start of 1916 was a success.
The composer himself called Trommelschläge "...the first piece of modern music." It has the effect of an enormous dirge, with the chorus alternately singing at full cry or speaking darkly. It ends as the trudging march moves on.
Edward Nelson then joined the orchestra for Kurt Weill's Four Walt Whitman Songs. Looking dapper in his tux, the slender, blonde baritone sang handsomely. Weill's setting of "Beat! Beat! Drums!" (the same poem Schoek used for his Trommelschläge) has a swaying march-ike feeling and trumpet calls. Mr. Nelson's voice, essentially lyric, stood up well against the large orchestra; he never forced the tone, projecting smoothly into the hall, and ending the song on a very long note.
In "Oh Captain! My Captain!", Mr. Nelson's rendering was gently expressive and thoughtful; the music is melodious and the singer's dynamic modulations gave it a moving polish. A church-bell chimes from the distance, like a messenger of death. Turning minor, the music swells, only to sink back to a quiet end.
Soft strings introduce "Come up from the Fields, Father", a song with the feel of a Broadway ballad. Lyrical at first, the music turns more dramatic; following an almost leisurely passage, sorrow wells up. A march is heard, fading into the distance.
The final Weill song, "Dirge for Two Veterans", has an ironic, cabaret air about it even though the poem seems like a lamenting of lost love. Mr. Nelson gave a heartfelt quality to the words, and the song has a beautiful end.
Mr. Nelson has recently sung Debussy's Pelléas at Oslo and Oviedo; to me, he has the perfect voice and look for that role.
Angel Blue was the soprano soloist for Franz Schreker's Vom ewigen Leben (From Eternal Life), a rather short cantata on the aspects of nature and of eternal of life. The ecstatic quality of Schreker’s vocal writing - set against a richly-coloured orchestral tapestry - provided me with a most congenial introduction to Ms. Blue's singing. To give an idea of her sound, one might imagine a blend of the tonal qualities of Roberta Akexander, Wilhelminia Fernandez, and Jessye Norman. But Ms. Blue is very much her own singer: fresh and opulent.
In the first song of Vom ewigen Leben ("Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone") opens quite delicately, with shimmering harp. Soon after commencing to sing, Ms. Blue took a piano high note and swelled it gorgeously: a true sorceress of song. Harps, celeste, and gentle bells sustain a magical atmosphere.
Haunting beauty marks the start of the second song, "A child said, What is the Grass?". Clarinet, celeste, and harp now mingle mysteriously, then somber trombones sound. Ms. Blue makes shining forays to the upper range as the song becomes a lyrical outpouring; her lower range speaks clearly, without pushing the tone. In the final passages of the cantata, there was a far-gazing expression in the soprano's eyes. The music fades away on an almost imperceptible note.
Following the interval, Ms. Blue and Mr. Nelson returned for the evening's final offering: Ralph Vaughan Williams' monumental A Sea Symphony'. While an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, Vaughan Williams was introduced to the poems of Walt Whitman by his classmate Bertrand Russell. Whitman's poetry inspired the composer who, in 1903, began sketching out his first symphony - originally entitled Songs of the Sea - drawing on the poet's Leaves of Grass for his text. The work underwent a long creative process, including Vaughan Williams' time studying in France with Maurice Ravel in early 1908.
Whitman and Vaughan Williams largely shared a particular world view, which accounts for the splendid meshing of words and music that is the Sea Symphony. Along with works by Elgar and Parry, Vaughan Williams' epic work contains some of the finest choral writing to come out of England.
Few works of music can rival the Sea Symphony's glorious start: “Behold the sea!”, exhorts the massed chorus. Vaughan Williams vividly evokes the immensity of the sea, and its untamed force, in music of cinematic splendour. The two soloists have much to do, both continually drawing me in with the appealing timbres of their voices. A huge choral hymn wells up, followed by a coda in which soprano and baritone sing beautifully amidst choral interjections. Ms. Blue delivers a radiantly sustained piano high note, straight out of heaven.
“On the Beach at Night Alone”, opening in a somber mood, brings us Mr. Nelsons' truly affecting singing of this Whitman poem, set as a nocturne. Underpinned by dusky horns, the baritone and chorus create a pensive atmosphere as they ponder humanity’s place in the boundless universe. An a cappella chorus comments on the singer's solo lines, then a build-up of alternating passages for chorus and orchestra leads to further lovely singing from Mr. Nelson. Winds, horns, viola, and cello cast a spell of sadness in an orchestral postlude that vanishes into air.
The scherzo, “The Waves,” begins with a fanfare-like passage recalling the symphony's opening bars. A great ship cresting the waves of a windswept, turbulent sea is envisioned in Vaughan Williams’ virtuosic writing for his huge forces. A martial hymn and a scurrying, animated passage build up to a grand final vision of the ocean that vanishes with surprising abruptness.
The deeply beautiful opening of the final movement, “The Explorers”, strikingly employs chorus and harps. In this movement, a cappella choral passages and underlying tension builds to epic grandeur. We are SAILING! Following an orchestral interlude, Ms. Blue and Mr. Nelson sing as a duet. Flutes and violins bring a spell of calm; the two soloists sing splendidly. Another a cappella choral passage, and then Ms. Blue issues a summons: "Away!" The voyage is on: "O my brave soul! O farther sail! O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?”
At times here, it seems Vaughan Williams cannot quite decide how to make an ending.
But another remarkable high note from Angel Blue shines like a beacon. Now the ship has sailed on to the unknown future. The sea becalms itself. The music vanishes quietly, like the ebbing tide.
It was truly a joy to experience this work live for the first time. Ms. Blue and Ms. Nelson shared a warm embrace as applause filled the venerable hall. In these dark days, great music is a blessèd assurance, more essential now than ever before.
It was so nice to see Eve Queler among the audience - a clap-happy audience that caused many distractions during the performance, including a man who stood up, yelled something, and stormed out of the hall just before the SEA SYMPHONY started.
For all that, it was a truly uplifting evening.