“Stephanie Blythe & Friends,” a concert presented on August 10 at Tanglewood’s Florence Gould Auditorium, Seiji Ozawa Hall, provided an opportunity to experience one of the most beautiful and powerful voices of our time as it transformed even the most familiar music into a sublime experience.
Blythe has quickly become a regular on the Boston music scene, and her amazing voice combined with her gracious enthusiasm have gained her many treasured colleagues and collaborators as well as fans. Among them is composer and pianist Alan Smith, who contributed two substantial works to the evening. His song cycle Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman from the Daily Journal of Margaret Ann Alsip Frink, 1850, for mezzo-soprano, violin, cello, and piano was written in 2007 especially for Blythe. Smith’s talents as a composer lie firmly in the realm of storytelling; this set of eleven songs and two brief instrumentals expertly relates scenes from a Midwestern woman’s wagon trip to California during the days of the gold rush through an engaging use of instrumental timbres and varied melodic and harmonic constructs that steadfastly avoided cinematic cliché, cowboy kitsch, and Wild West romanticizing. Blythe’s delivery brought to life all sides of the narrator in a fully formed understanding of character and emotion, from her confident determination to her ability to marvel unguardedly at the adventure of it all.
I wish Smith’s second work on the program, An Unknown Sphere for mezzo-soprano solo and unaccompanied mixed chorus, had achieved equally engaging heights. It seems that Walt Whitman’s poetry, while sublime, lacks the narrative impulse that brings out the best in Alan Smith’s vocal writing. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus achieved a nice, big sound and Stephanie Blythe gave all her expressive power to her solos. Nevertheless, the piece only offered a few remarkable moments within a predictably dull setting.
In between these two pieces by Smith, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia (Songs of Prisoners), a mini-cantata for mixed chorus, two pianos, two harps, and percussion. The texts Dallapiccola chose, by Mary Stuart, Boethius, and Savonarola, three figures imprisoned and executed for largely political reasons, are centuries old, but this piece, written in 1941, gives them modern resonance. Despite a rather large percussion ensemble, Dallapiccola’s careful orchestration achieves constrained and dark timbres shot through with the piercing tones of xylophone and the delicacy of the harps, like shafts of light reaching to the depths of a dungeon. The chorus emerges from this texture with whispers and a slowly building line, immersing the listener in a world of suffering struggling toward revelation and release. The TFC, bringing the same attention to detail and clarity of expression to this modern work as is usual for standard repertoire, conveyed Dallapiccola’s juxtaposition of suffering and the ability to transcend it, in text setting ranging from passages reminiscent of liturgical chant to biting, modernistic polyphony. Each climax within the three movements united the chorus and the instrumental ensemble with a masterful sense of building and releasing of tension. Occasional snippets of the “dies irae” chant underline the religious impulses in the text. As Canti di prigionia progresses towards its conclusion, Dallapiccola’s music turns more and more toward the revelation of divine comfort and perhaps justice, bringing the piece to a point of epiphany tinged with tragedy.
Stephanie Blythe closed the evening with arrangements of three traditional American songs: How Can I Keep from Singing?, There is a balm in Gilead, and Shenandoah. Each displayed the beauty of Blythe’s voice, but none so evocatively as her a cappella performance of How Can I Keep from Singing?; her exquisitely sublime ornamentations brought tears to my eyes. How sweet, after such a rich musical journey, to be reminded of the straightforward power of an unadorned yet gorgeous voice.
Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series.