“Emily and New England,” presented Sunday afternoon, July 31, as part of the Monadnock Music Festival, was an enchanting event, settings of poetry of Emily Dickinson, interspersed with other works that had specifically New England ties or origins. The venue, Town Hall in Peterborough, NH, is a bright, airy space. The two artists, pianist Virginia Eskin and mezzo-soprano Krista River, offered consummate artistry, energy and passion. Eskin, a beloved regular of the festival, began with works by Amy Beach and cast a magical spell, bringing the nature all around us into the hall with By the Still Waters (1925) and Hermit Thrush at Eve (1922, composed at the nearby MacDowell Colony). This was an inspired pairing as the pieces worked as two parts of one exquisite scene.
Krista River then joined Eskin for six settings of Dickinson poems by Aaron Copland (1950). River has an understated intensity and clarity of expression as a singer; together the pair easily and gracefully brought these songs to life. The set was varied and balanced. In Nature, the Gentlest Mother, the delicate vocal part was surrounded by polish filigree in the piano; the artists sensitively illuminated the imagery of the poem. There Came a Wild Bugle was suitably bold. The World feels Dusty When we Stop to Die had a limpid melody with a restrained rocking accompaniment. Heart We Will Forget Him was also restrained, spare, and understated in its quiet deliberateness. Going to Heaven, with its cascading motive bounding upstairs, was full of dynamic energy, until its somber ending (but that too was given a playful final flourish).
One might question the function of provided printed text to the audience when the poetry being sung is in English. One might say it shouldn’t be needed – that we should be able to understand the words as sung. But my experience is that, even when sung with both precision and expression, and set so the voice is enhanced rather than overpowered (as were all the case here), I still tend to miss a word or phrase because I listen to the whole, and not just the words. Reading along helps me to keep focus on the words, and also is helpful in giving the big picture of the poem. If we agree on that point, then it is important to make sure that the version of the text being sung is the same as that which is given in print to the audience, and this was not the case. Providing English texts is helpful to the audience, but it is more helpful when the sung version and the version in the program agree.
A visit to the Dickinson house museum in Amherst emphasizes that most of the poet’s works survive in multiple versions, and that deciding on authoritative reading is no small task. Copland set (and River sang) versions of the poems that differed (on occasion) from those distributed to the audience. Hearing that difference brings a moment of confusion, and thus these texts ought to agree, and that complexities in the existence of multiple versions are matters to be addressed in the program notes. These notes (or a spoken comment) also should provide some guidance to the meaning and vocabulary of the poems, which are sometimes quite opaque. (“Hybla balms”? “neigh like Boanerges”? Lil’ help here, please!) The provided note was (in the case of Copland) generic, giving a broad introduction to the composer, rather than specific information. Clearly the notes were written before the details of the program were decided on, which lessened their usefulness.
I’ve gone on at length about this issue, which really was a very minor detail, because it’s a point that often comes up in performances of vocal works. It is a small factor in making a meaningful experience, and it is worth taking the time to make sure that this integrity is attained.
Eskin then performed two delightful solo piano works, Jazzy and Cat and Mouse, by the young Copland (1920). She announced that the next song, by Marion Bauer (1882-1955), might be a premiere, since it is from the library of the McDowell Colony. Bauer is one of the composers whom Eskin has championed in performances and recordings, and this song, Star-Trysts (poem by Thomas Walsh), was indeed a notable discovery. The musical language is not innovative but, rather, timeless. I found myself holding my breath so as not to disturb the perfect peace of the evening scene.
Three more piano works by Bauer followed, the most memorable, Indian Pipes. Eskin had brought an example the plant by that name from her garden, so we could see its delicate white fronds. The piece, however, was one of strong chiseled angularity. I’m not quite sure how a connection to the plant is made, but this was the most modern and adventurous of the Bauer pieces, its bold shifting chord blocks like granite formations, and its angular melodic fragments exchanging and echoing.
Composer Gordon Getty (b. 1934), completely unknown to me, was a welcome discovery; his settings were straightforward and graceful enhancements to the set of five Dickinson poems. In The first day’s night has come, the piano illustrated the onset of compulsive laughter, and expresses the wistful question “Could it be madness – this?” There came a wild bugle was an interesting contrast with the Copland version, since it was a recitative style parlando, underscored with piano outbursts. The final line, “and yet abide the world” is hushed, resigned. The set ended with Beauty crowns me till I die, an evocative lullaby of pure, brief simplicity.
Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, Op. 60 (1904) is one of the composers most monumental and weighty works for piano. However this was not the case in the version that Eskin presented on Sunday, concluding the program. Perhaps a different approach was hinted at in her brisk approach to the theme, marked “Adagio malincolico.” Variation II, “Maestoso” was played with brilliance and bravura in its Lisztian flourishes. The piece (which has four themes) then moved into more atmospheric climates, some variations sparkly and shimmering, others more melancholy in the emphasis of harmonic minor. Variation VII picks up with its vigorous Hungarian Rhapsody. Yes, it was gearing up (I thought) – but then Eskin brought the piece to a close with a flourish! Eskin made this quite convincing and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience to feel surprise and disappointment at only hearing half the piece. An announcement explaining that she would only present a section of the work would have been helpful. From one point of view it does make sense to leave out the funeral march section (too lugubrious for a beautiful Sunday afternoon), and to end with a rollicking (rather than somber) conclusion. Eskin has been a pioneering performer of Beach for many years, and she has recorded this work twice. We can certainly benefit from her ideas for reinterpreting and recasting the work, but I think we just deserved a “heads up.”
Apart from a few details, it was a gorgeous and spirit-lifting afternoon, and I was glad to take in part of Monadnock Festival, which always brings a wealth of interesting programming and quality musicianship.
Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.