On January 16th in First Church Boston, composer Larry Bell celebrated both his 60th birthday and the release of his latest CD with performances of music form the new album. Almost more a soiree than a concert, the 40-or-so audience members seemed to consist mostly of friends and admirers who had turned out to spend time with a talented and respected teacher and mentor.
The bulk of the program consisted of three out of four of the song cycles that together form The Seasons, a cantata in which Bell sets poems of New England poet Elizabeth Kirschner. Kirschner’s poetry is dense, laden with almost overwhelming sensuality, much of which involves evocative musical images. Though they seem like natural choices for a composer to want to set to music, the poems let loose such cascades of text that Bell’s music sometimes got lost among all the words. For the most part, though, he was able to craft sounds that suited the text, surrounding the vivid poetic swirls with a rich textural palate reminiscent of the English Pastoral tradition. His choice of instruments and the way he wrote for them reflected skilled experience. He was able to turn each one into perfect sonic reflections of the seasons they represented: orange-and-red hued harp for Autumn; windy, icy piano for Winter; jaunty, bird-ish harpsichord for Spring.
The emotional contours of the songs tended to be broad, that of distant, rolling hills. There were, however, a few truly moving moments, such as the end of “Exiled Deities” in which the tenor floats hauntingly high over the “church we call the world,” or the joyous “glory of clouds” that the baritone rings out in “In a Garden of Dreamers.” The singers themselves were clearly dedicated to the material, and if Thomas Gregg’s easy, natural tenor voice sometimes lost its pitch center, or Bethany Tammaro Condon’s expressive mezzo-soprano occasionally suffered from muddled diction, it did not detract from the obvious pleasure these artists took in delivering the music.
The concert also featured two short instrumental works that reflected Bell’s apparent love of 18th-century music. Both the Serenade No. 2 for recorder, cello, and harpsichord, and the Partita No. 1 for solo harpsichord demonstrated a charming take on Neo-Baroqueism. It was as if the players had discovered unknown scores from 300 years ago, did not quite know how to read them, but gave it a go anyway, filling in the gaps with their own, 21st-century musical personality and wit. These works were wholly enjoyable gems that made for welcome diversions from the loftier nature of the songs.
On a personal note, as a composer nearly two decades his junior, I was glad to hear Bell’s music for the first time in the context of celebrating an inspirational career. I wish him even greater success in the next 60 years.