On a calm Sunday night before Hurricane Sandy, I went to Distler Auditorium at Tufts University for a concert of new works by William Kenlon, who got his M.A. degree in composition from Tufts last year. This was the third time I have been introduced to his music, and the third time I have been delighted. Kenlon is young but already skilled and experienced, and I have always found in his work a lyrical personality that is original and strong.
There was no printed program, nor any handout with song texts; everything was announced from the stage, and I was able to discern only a few titles and even fewer names of performers, although I recognized former students and colleagues, including Jason Coleman (cello, now studying at NEC) and pianists Michael McLaughlin (who directs the Tufts Klezmer ensemble) and John McDonald, who is Kenlon’s teacher. The program began with three jazz numbers (trumpet, soprano sax, piano, bass, percussion, and Kenlon himself playing virtuosic vibes). The titles were “Waltz, Mostly”; “I Don’t Want to Remember”; and “That Old Mill.” The first two of these entranced me with their classically-rooted harmonic sequences; the third piece was more spread out and moody, with quartal harmony and spacious, ruminative solos.
The rest of the program comprised three song cycles. These began with four poems from Die Blinde (The Blind Woman) by Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838), the Franco-German poet best known for his Frauenliebe und -leben in Schumann’s famous settings, though Chamisso was also a renowned botanist who explored Alaska and the California coast (he was the first to describe the California poppy). Kenlon’s mournful settings, for soprano with piano and cello, concentrated on thin, clear, expressive textures, with mostly piano accompanying the first song, and cello solo in the fourth, and the two instruments sharing the accompaniment in the middle two.
Kenlon sang his own tiny Dream Songs, vol. 3, in a clear tenor voice with piano accompaniment. These were all nicely-shaped vignettes in a loosely tonal style that reminded me of Satie, but perhaps this is an overstatement. The texts are short and whimsical; for no. 1, “Cruel,” it was “Often the best dreams are the most cruel,” whereas the sixth song, “Shrimp,” went like this: “An explosion of the gas grill was all it took: the shrimp was done.”
Lost in the Woods was the most substantial work on the program; it consists of four songs on poems of Neruda for soprano and small orchestra: flute (piccolo), oboe (English horn), clarinet, horn, string quartet, piano, harp, timpani and percussion. These deeply felt pieces were organized around a rich tonal scheme with one striking recurrent motive, a C minor triad with English horn and harp; it returns for the last time with flute and clarinet, but I missed the harp. Not many composers of recent years have explored this kind of complex tonality so successfully – Britten is one, Barber another. Kenlon handles the voice ably, and I never felt that the singers were strained at any point in the evening; but the harmony above all is what repeatedly impressed me about this music; it is solid without being dense, clear without being sparse, and ever-changing without being random. About fifty people were there to hear Kenlon’s work. I have a strong sense that it will be heard more widely, and soon; it deserves it.