Monday, March 19, 2018

Examining “Dream States” Through Song

Yesterday afternoon at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, Clerestory concluded its twelfth season with a program entitled Dream States: Songs of Daring and Whimsy. That subtitle suggests that, among other things, the program would use music to explore different dispositions of consciousness (such as daring and whimsy). This, in turn, led to the implication that this would probably be an offering in which the words mattered as much of the music; and, indeed, those words were reinforced by a rich set of insights revealed through the program notes provided by John Palmer. All this might lead the skeptical reader to wonder whether this was a concert or some unorthodox approach to a senior seminar.

The result was definitely a concert, but it was a vocal performance in which the words mattered as much as the music. That made it an opportunity to appreciate the clarity of diction encountered in all nine of the men of Clerestory. Yes, text sheets were still necessary. When the polyphony got thick (as it frequently did), the ear definitely needed the assistance of the printed page to resolve what the words actually were. Through that resolution, however, one could appreciate how each of the works on the program (possibly even the opening monophonic hymn) maintained an intense commitment to semantics over vague emotional impressions.

Indeed, if there was any problem with yesterday’s program, it was one of an ongoing risk of cognitive overload. Fortunately, individual selections tended to be on the short side; and, while the program was performed without intermission, the overall duration spanned a little more than an hour. Nevertheless, the richness of content with which that hour was filled put a real strain on memory trying to recollect just what had happened when one left the church sanctuary.

To my advantage, a few of selections were familiar. As a voracious consumer of all of the music of Johannes Brahms, I was glad to see two of his choral works on the program. The first of these was the setting of Paul Heyse’s “Waldesnacht” (forested night), the third of the seven choral songs in Opus 62; and the second was the second of two settings of Friedrich Rückert’s “Nachtwache” (night-watch), the second of the five choral songs in Opus 104. These were separated by a choral serenade by Edward Elgar setting Rosa Newmarch’s poem “Dreams All Too Brief,” which she adapted from a poem by Nikolai Minsky. Through recordings I had come to know all three of these pieces sung by larger resources, but the transparency afforded by the more limited Clerestory resources allowed for greater appreciation of both the polyphony and the moody qualities of the poetic texts.

Among my “first contact” experiences, the strongest probably came from Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Suite de Lorca, setting four poems by Federico García Lorca. However, I also welcomed the opportunity to listen to more of David Conte’s music in his setting of Robert Herrick’s poem “Charm Me Asleep.” Just as welcome was the idea of ending the whole program in a more popular vein. How could a program about “dream states” not include Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair?” Clerestory sang an a cappella arrangement by Gene Puerling that made this selection anything but banal. More ironic (but unintentionally so) was Jesse Antin’s arrangement of “When I Dream of Old Erin.” Nothing could have been more appropriate for Saint Patrick’s Day, even if the song was written by a Tin Pan Alley Jew (Leo Friedman, best known for having written “Let Me Call Your Sweetheart”)!

Original sheet music cover of Stephen Foster’s song (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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