Boston Secession

The Hub Review - May 2007

Mother Love

Wednesday, May 2, 2007
by Thomas Garvey

It isn't often that a local musical group premieres a piece that one senses immediately will become part of the permanent repertory, but that's exactly what happened last Friday night at the final Boston Secession concert of the season. The concert itself, "Mother Tongue," was designed as a kind of guided tour through the pleasures and pitfalls of setting the English language to music, and the evening featured the group's familiar strengths - a commitment to serious musicianship leavened with a friendly sense of joie de vivre.

This time out, however, the balance was a little less harmonious than usual; artistic director Jane Ring Frank's comments were gathered into what almost amounted to a lecture, complete with detailed analyses of metrical feet (dactyls, trochees, etc.). Frank's general point was that after the untimely death of Purcell (and the later popularity of Handel), the English adopted French and Italian vocal forms which were ill-suited to the accented rhythms of their "mother tongue" (as in, a tongue that's a real mother!) - and Frank had some hilarious examples of nineteenth century pseudo-Franco-Italian writing (by the likes of Michael W. Balfe) to back up her thesis. It wasn't until Gilbert and Sullivan, she pointed out, that musical strategies began to catch up with the metrical problems of English - eventually leading to the musical flowering of the language in the twentieth century, under Britten and other composers.

This is certainly fine as far as it goes, and Frank's technical analysis was definitely sure-footed (in both senses of the term). But it seemed to this listener that she ignored a deeper cultural shift that brought English to the vocal fore in the twentieth century: the musical world as a whole was groping for an ironic, intellectualized style to grapple with the aesthetic problems of the modern era - and English is nothing if not appropriate to ironic modes. (It didn't hurt, either, that there was so much sympathy between the musical and literary styles of Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden, one of the century's greatest composers and one of its greatest poets.)

But whatever the reason for the slow bloom of the English musical tradition, we were more than ready for it to flower after a little too much Victorian parody (and one amusingly prickly poem from Marianne Moore, set by Virgil Thomson). Luckily, Frank and the Boston Secession delivered: the concert reached a stunning high point with the Britten/Auden Hymn to St. Cecilia (the patron saint of music). Here, Britten was blessed with an Auden text that's almost the equal of such classics as "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," and his setting is justifiably famous for its lovely extension of traditional modes to a new, mournful self-awareness. Appropriately, the chorale's singing was at its most crystalline, and Frank's direction seemed to capture every facet of Auden's multivalent mood; at its conclusion, the crowd understandably went wild.

Daringly, however, Frank had then programmed three new commissions in a row, "Ashes of Soldiers," by Byron Adams to a text by Walt Whitman; "After the Storm," by the Secession's resident composer, Ruth Lomon, to a text by Joyce Carol Oates; and "Prospects," by Emerson's Scott Wheeler, to a text by Anthony Hecht. All of these proved worthy; Wheeler's, a wry take on the naivete of idealism, had a haunting sense of abstract space in its shifting vocal planes, while Lomon's, a quietly alienated evocation of a disastrous flood (cross-cut with banal line readings from local weathermen) intrigued but didn't quite seem to take its ideas the full musical distance.

"Ashes of Soldiers," however, like many a small masterpiece, seemed to cohere from its opening moments, and by its conclusion it was hard to fight the feeling that one had just heard an instant classic. Adams (like Britten) was blessed with a stunning text - Whitman at his most mournfully piercing - and while his musical voice may not be deeply original, here he's clearly operating at something like a personal best technically, and with impressive emotional sensitivity. Whitman's ode is a "chant in the name of all dead soldiers," for whom "all is over and long gone," but for whom Whitman's love, however, "is not over," and will never be over. The piece perfectly balances the deepest love of the soldier with the deepest disillusion with war - and so, perhaps, will serve as an appropriate threnody to our lost boys and girls in Iraq, and indeed on battlefields everywhere.
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