Basing songs on themes of nature was a vogue in the 19th century, as exemplified famously by certain of Schubert’s cycles and Grieg’s fjord songs. More recently, Aaron Copland set poems by Emily Dickinson, and Virgil Thomson some by Robert Frost. Love of Nature’s beauty and Her creatures was seldom far removed from human love. Now five creative people deeply inspired by birds have collaborated to present a rara avis: a glowing cross-discipline entertainment of poetry, song, and natural history that affords the birds a bully pulpit of representation without excessive anthropomorphizing. Babson professor Mary Pinard’s keenly-observed bird poems sparked Boston-based composer Andrew List to write twelve avian portraits, sung by mezzo-soprano Krista River in collaboration with pianist George Lopez yesterday night at the Glavin Family Chapel. Wayne Petersen, Mass Audubon ornithologist, gave a stirring companion slideshow on the mystery of migration.
The program unfolded in a pleasing, logical arc: Pinard read six poems; River and Lopez performed six songs; Petersen lectured; five poems; six songs. Pinard read her little gems in a focused, susurrant voice, as her close-up observations shifted from a Cardinal’s iridescent plumage in a birdbath, to a Goldfinch dangling upside-down on thistle, to personifying a Crow boasting with arrogant sass and a Pileated Woodpecker feeling as grand as a pterodactyl. She followed her litany homage to ducks, geese and swans with a soaring paean to the Arctic Tern, later echoed by Petersen’s mind-boggling account of its 20,000-mile annual round-trip pilgrimage between Patagonia and the Bering Sea.
List’s handsome setting, titled , On the Wing, —hewed closely to the portraits’ shifting moods, from majesty to comedy, and were lyrical, accessible. “Of Sparrows” caught the ‘little-brown-jobs’ in their now-you-see-‘em fidgetiness, then drily lamented their non-descript plumage in “how to tell you all apart?” The “searching wail” of a loon, a gull’s “wheeling updrafts,” and a vulture’s macabre nobility all came across as vivid, rhapsodic enchantments. As a lifelong birdwatcher, I found myself reassessing my mental images of “parrot” as regal and “cowbird” as a mischievous, self-aware interloper. “Flamingo” elevated the species from ticky-tacky garden-ornament caricature to the immense grandeur of a rising pink flock at sunset. Indeed, ennoblement of this chosen mixed flock in the often dismissive view of man was at the heart of the presentation.
River and Lopez, both proven adepts at interpreting Bach’s cantatas and keyboard works respectively, navigated List’s arching melodies with easy dignity and aplomb, exhibiting a sixth sense for synchronous shading and dynamics; they made it seem as easy as ice dancers or turn-on-a-dime shorebird flocks. (Petersen, too, a polished veteran field-trip leader, was at his ease weaving a lifelong accumulation of data into skeins of riveting anecdotes.) River rode Lopez’ powerful octave passages as the eagle’s wings “cause the winds to blow” and softly bemoaned the passing of extinct species in a final dirge-like ululation; snow falling from laden branches outside the chapel’s blue stained-glass windows underscored the final notes of grim resignation.
An animated conversation between audience and performers discussed the principals’ creative impetus and how they manage to achieve intimacy with birds through the far end of binoculars or telescopes.
Area performances this week will take place on Sunday, February 23, 2pm, at Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips-Andover Academy, 180 Main St., Andover; and on Wednesday February 26, 7:30pm at David Friend Recital Hall, Berklee College of Music where, for full disclosure, List and this reporter are on the faculty. Two performances took place last week at Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, where Lopez is honored as Beckwith Artist in Residence. Excited post-concert talk broached the likelihood of migrating On The Wing as instructional entertainment at national birding festivals and conferences.
Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine (Chicago) and The New York City Jazz Record, and about wine for Beverage Business (Boston); he teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music and occasionally lectures on jazz history at Boston University.