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Composer Ned Rorem would have turned 100 on October 23, 2023. Lyric Fest marked the occasion with a rare complete performance of Evidence of Things Not Seen, a mammoth song cycle that encapsulates his lifetime of artistry in 90 minutes. Like much of Rorem’s work, it’s expansive and intimate all at once—qualities that also defined the musicianship on display at the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
Although Rorem’s career spanned eight decades—from nearly his student days at the Curtis Institute to his early 90s—Evidence of Things Not Seen represents something of a capstone. Commissioned on the occasion of his 75th birthday, the evening-length work sets 36 poetic texts by 24 writers in a manner that naturally reflects an artist looking back on life. Rorem grouped the songs into three sections, entitled “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Ends.”
The irony, as Lyric Fest artistic director Suzanne DuPlantis pointed out in pre-concert remarks, is that Rorem would go on to see another quarter-century after completing his magnum opus. (He died in November 2022.) Yet even without revision to incorporate the added perspective of his later years, the work captures the distinct qualities of a life span, alternatingly fulfilling and frustrating and full of joy tempered with sorrow.
Vivid, vibrant, piercing
Soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart, mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson, tenor William Ferguson, and baritone Randall Scarlata offered a theatrically vivid and vocally vibrant interpretation of the material. The “Beginnings” section buzzed with the discoveries of youth as the four singers summoned the passionate flurry of creation in the opening selection, “From Whence Cometh Song?” from a text by Theodore Roethke. Similarly, pianist Laura Ward captured a varied blend of musical styles that suggested an artist finding his voice: impressionistic passages that perhaps represented Rorem’s sojourn to France gave way to a distinctly folksy American sound.
The section was not without ruminative qualities, especially those heard in the plaintive nostalgia of “Boy With a Baseball Glove,” which found Ferguson slimming his robust instrument to a threadbare whisper. But the overall enthusiasm served as a fitting contrast to the more measured “Middles” section, which spoke more directly to the challenges of a life in flux. Here, I was particularly struck by the heart-rending simplicity of Jane Kenyon’s “The Sick Wife,” to which Patterson brought a piercing clarity.
Rorem was a gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis and lost many intimate partners to the disease. While composing Evidence of Things Not Seen, he was also caring for his partner, James Holmes, as he struggled with cancer. (Holmes died in 1999, two years after the cycle was completed.) It’s impossible to consider a song like “The Sick Wife” without applying those lenses or to consider the draw that a poet like Kenyon—who died at 47 and, like Holmes, left behind an older spouse—would have had on Rorem in that moment.
Profound and poignant
“Ends” features an even more direct reflection of these experiences, with its febrile setting of Mark Doty’s “Faith” and the harrowing penultimate song, “Even Now,” from an elegiac text by Paul Monette. Scarlata and Ward partnered to turn “Faith” into a miniature monodrama, tensions rising as the inevitability of death can no longer be avoided. The accompaniment faded away for large portions of “Even Now,” leaving only the figure of a person left unmoored by life. Rorem was sometimes dismissed for the musical modesty of his songs, but I don’t know how anyone could hear these two selections back-to-back and not be convinced of his profound artistry.
If I had to offer one quibble for the evening, it would be with the venue. Although a church provides a rich acoustic for voices, it can also cause lyrics to sound smudged. The singers did their best to avoid this, and Ward provided sensitive accompaniment throughout, but at certain points, it was unavoidable. Such a text-focused work would have been better appreciated in a more traditional venue, although there was a poignant component to the setting. Rorem, we were told, was “an atheist who believed in belief.” In their moving tribute, Lyric Fest highlighted his immense capacity to infuse life’s minutiae with a spiritual sense of weight.
Above: composer Ned Rorem. (Photo by Vincent Tullo.)
What, When, Where
Evidence of Things Not Seen. Composed by Ned Rorem. Miriam Gordon-Stewart, soprano; Brenda Patterson, mezzo-soprano; William Ferguson, tenor; Randall Scarlata, baritone; and Laura Ward, piano. Lyric Fest. October 23, 2023, at First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, 201 S 21st Street, Philadelphia. (215) 438-1702 or lyricfest.org.
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