Poems sung to music are more common than those spoken over a score. Sometimes I dread the latter, since the combination of spoken verse over melody can feel so mannered. But when it works, the result is, well, art.
So, it was with Fishing, Chris Rogerson’s chamber setting of Joan Hutton Landis’s narrative poem performed by Orchestra 2001 at Swarthmore’s Lang Concert Hall.
Fishing was one of three new works, each giving a prominent role to the keyboard. Rogerson’s was the largest and most effective work, scored for a superb ensemble of keyboard (here taken by Charles Abramovic), clarinet (Allison Herz), cello (Lori Barnet), narrator (Catherine Slusar, the actor who did not overact) and conductor (James Freeman). The narrator doesn’t enter the musical frame until a substantial part of this clear-hearted music has presented itself.
Grandfather’s fishing trip
Rogerson’s astonishing music is neither thick nor thin but a web of lyricism that overlaps and links; it suggests light and water, contains glints of the pastoral, and offers turns that feel familiar but then surprise us. The chamber music, a true partner, supports, intrudes upon or fades (here a cello line, there a clarinet) throughout the poem’s meditation on a family tradition.
Fishing opens with a grandfather taking his grandsons to fish. He shows them how to cast, to net, later how to prepare the catch. The poem is told from the perspective of the grandmother, who sees the boys’ reactions when
My husband shows them how to hold and place the knife,
Cut off the head, slice the gut. Both boys watch
step back. Kai’s kindness keeps him mute
Rye asks about the orange clusters in some fish.
The boy’s distress over “murdering the babies” (“How can you do it? It’s not just!”) distresses the grandmother:
I vowed to tell him adults rarely find a way
to talk about their own brutality, or see it;
that fishing was for some a real necessity
but he was right and brave to take the fishes’ side.
The poem’s turn is the grandmother’s own brutal turn on herself, her admission.
Somehow my chance to tell him how I empathized,
”¦ Darkened like the day, then guttered
And went out.
Rogerson’s music supports the emotion of the lines but without undue pathos, which is the poet’s bane. I’m eager to hear more of this young man’s music (he is 26), including That Blue Repair, another setting Rogerson made of Landis’s work (presented at Carnegie Hall a while ago). That Blue Repair is also the title of Landis’s first poetry collection (Penstroke Press).
Honoring Freeman’s parents
The distinguished Gunther Schuller’s new Sonata for Two Pianos was another of the program’s premieres, this one performed by James Freeman and Charles Abramovic. Freeman and his brother Robert commissioned the work to honor their late parents, Florence and Henry, violinist and bassist respectively, musicians greatly admired in Boston and Rochester during their many years as professional musicians.
The Freeman brothers had intended to perform it together, but at the last minute Robert was unavailable. The sonata reserves the upper and lower ends of the keyboard for each pianist; neither intrudes upon the other’s territory.
My impression was of a music of conversational fragments, whose emotions are guarded (or held in check), then become more complicated— even thorny— during the Allegro first movement. A haunting sensibility pervades the second movement Adagio languoroso, which conveys jazz idioms and colors.
The third movement, a landscape of flourishes, suggests many piano techniques that put me in mind of Debussy’s impressionism and Chopin’s passion. It’s the most outwardly expressive part of this intelligent and well-built sonata, whose emotions I could not intuit. Perhaps it’s best to remind oneself that a sonata (like a poem) needn’t mean but be. The playing of Freeman and Abramovic (alert, alacritous) was exemplary.
David Crumb’s solo work for piano, Red Desert Triptych, also consists of three parts. I found the first of the set the most promising, and the intention behind all three whetted my interest.
Each movement contains a reference to a geological landscape. Single tones, then the interval of seconds, open “Rock Cathedrals Rising,” a section whose bell-like mysteries build into a meditation. I’ve never seen these towering formations (I assume they’re towering).
Crumb’s piece suggests an American’s take on Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral, minus the Impressionist’s heavy pedal effects. I found the use of open and closed intervals effective, and I admired the pace of silences and repetitions, and the musical escalations. A sense of mystery coheres.
I suspect the challenge with the second movement, “Dance of the Hoodoos” (another rock formation in Utah), is that the composer hasn’t found or convincingly placed within this piece the ideal sonic “image” or pattern to compel the listener.
“Fantasy, Passacaglia, and Fugue on a Theme by J.S. Bach” begins well but intermittently loses the listener’s interest, wearing out its welcome by continuing with ideas we have heard before. If we’re to hear them again, they must be treated more unusually. Marcantonio Barone’s evocations were quite wonderful; his understanding of composer Crumb’s intentions appears keen.
I’d like to hear these pieces again, each on its own and perhaps with some revising. It’s a challenge to suggest the grandeur of nature, but it can be done.♦
To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.
To read a response, click here.