in: Reviews

March 17, 2014

Ballads for Americans

by

Lisa Graham (file photo)

Lisa Graham (file photo)

To some extent the Metropolitan Chorale’s “American Stories” was a feel-good, throwback patriotic celebration in a genre that began with Earl Hawley Robinson’s (1910–1991) lofty, lefty, folksy yet patriotically skeptical Ballad for Americans [here with Paul Robeson]. The Americana provided yesterday was rather consistent in sound with a lot of open fifths and predictable harmonies, although, responsive to its texts, dispensing acutely judged sentiment. Compared with the cornball “Ballade for Americans,” what the Metropolitan Chorale and Brookline Symphony under Lisa Graham delivered at All Saints Brookline was more sophisticated but equally heartfelt. In such circumstances it is risky for a critic to challenge these well-executed performances of always at least serviceable music. And in fact, except in one case, our quibbles have to do more with unevenness of the texts than with the performances.

And that case would be Robin Young’s intoning of Lincoln Portrait. When the reading is a mere celebrity turn, it loses the force and dignity that remind us it was written when America had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and was not at all certain to be victorious in the ongoing war. Though it could have been a product of the WPA, Lincoln Portrait was actually written to a private commission from Andre Kostenanetz. Lisa Graham directed Brookline Symphony (in place of music director Adam Boyles) in the emotional, extended introduction with fine flair. There were dynamic variety, balanced solos, a grand and well-gauged crescendo, and in general, and in this repertoire, playing of a quality that quickly banished any anxieties about community orchestras. The players were alert to the changes in meter and tempo and produced a fine sound under an unfamiliar conductor. Copland was being well served until the disembodied, amplified voice of Public Radio personality Robin Young materialized from the general direction of her perch in the high pulpit. I was careful to consider whether my shock was based on hearing a woman in these readings, but that was not the problem, especially since Lincoln’s voice is remembered as thin and reedy. Unfortunately, Young rushed, employed rising cadences, and to my ear did not find the key to the drama in Lincoln’s words. The orchestra’s intervening punctuations were suitably wholehearted, but during the readings one felt hurried perkiness instead of gravitas.

In the opener, Charles Ives’s nicely syncopated and jaunty musical fantasy on circus troopers’ imaginings, Circus Band, one could smell the popcorn and cotton candy but could not hear the frothy couplets. The men especially were covered, almost as in Beecham’s famous “I covered that singer in the interest of the audience.” According to a player in the orchestra, that was actually Ives’s seditious intent. Anyway, it’s what the libretto is for, and we had compensatory wittiness aplenty from Graham and her pleasing players and singers.

“American Stories” seemed organized upon individual accounts of American life, whether from poetry, oratory, a warrior’s letter from the conflict, or a searing story from the news. Ives was followed by a setting of one of the two immortal poems on the program. Halsey Stevens (1908–1989) chose Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Ballad of William Sycamore” for his ode to the American prairie and American exceptionalism. In mien, the ballade is Coplandesque with a strong touch of Randall Thompson, and a whiff of the sort of writing favored by choral composers wishing to sell some scores. Yet because it was so attentive to the wonderful text and so well-colored by its performance, it really transcended genre. The easygoing harmonies and dimorphism of men and women answering each other hearkened unto Frostiana. Concertmaster Amos Lawrence’s hoedown solo summoned up Martha Graham and delightful whip-cracking nostalgia; the unstrained tenors and deliciously non-wobbly women conjured youthful frontier optimism. But by the time we got to “We cleared the camp,” however, something deeper was happening—an elegiac hymn to the Civil War dead and the vanishing prairie. “And I have much content in my dying” was delivered by chorus and orchestra with fine and reassuring consolation. The balladeer left us with an affecting image, “I sleep in earth like a tired fox/ And my Buffalo have found me.” Graham singled out the excellent winds and brass for solo bows and showed gratitude to the chorus.

After intermission came another, WPAish work, Song of Democracy, from Howard Hanson, a noted symphonist and for 40 years director of the Eastman School of Music. He set the words of Walt Whitman’s “An Old Man’s Thoughts of School” with wonderfully evocative flair. The setting and execution perfectly delivered the dignity and nostalgia in Whitman’s ode. In no other poem I can think of has primary education been celebrated with such romantic longing, and to couple it with the fourth stanza of “Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood,” comparing education to the “best ship of Democracy,” was genius on the composer’s part. Hanson’s word painting was exceptional in its variety. You could imagine the energetic buzzing of the young students who were “Building, equipping like a fleet of ships.” There were moments of quietly chanted “tiresome lessons” followed by sunbeams of harmony on the text “Only a public school / Ah more, infinitely more.” The performance conveyed warm affection for Whitman, Hanson and America.

But uncritical nostalgia was not the only theme in the program. Deep regret over the martyred dead in Lincoln’s time echoed in a soldier’s letter to his family and in a eulogy for a murdered youth. David Conte, according to Lisa Graham’s excellent notes, was so profoundly moved by the murder of Matthew Shepard that he asked his friend John Stirling Walker for an elegy. The poem, apparently written in half an hour, is abstract of imagery, invoking martyrs and angels rather than an individual victim. Conte’s Elegy for Matthew, from 1999, is in a generous musical language that could have come from the ’40s or ’50s, and thus was a very good fit for this program. The players and singers effectively shaped the emotional phrases into a real monument to Shepard. Solo clarinet and horns conveyed an almost Brahmsian pathos. Deep reflection gave way to a Dies irae anger only briefly, in the lines “To hell-bent fury on a prairie cold / To hatred’s dark malignant blows,” the only words to paint an image of the horrifying episode, before subsiding into Faure Requiem-like consolation.

The audience had one more experience of great sadness to endure. Lee Hoiby’s Last Letter Home (2006), for a cappella choir, gave voice to PFC Jesse Givens’s letter to his wife and children born and unborn written in anticipation of a battle a week later in which he died. A chamber choir subset of the Metropolitan Chorale sang from the rear of the nave, perhaps because the emotions were so profound they didn’t want to be seen. The feelings could have been maudlin in the hands of a lesser composer, but Hoiby employed no cheap effects, letting the words speak plainly. The chamber choristers were secure of pitch, displaying fine blend and well-shaped phrasing which preserved the sense that we were overhearing Givens conversing with his family.

The concert was not to end without a happy sendoff a la Hollywood, or in this case Broadway, specifically “Wheels of a Dream” from Ragtime, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. The change of style jolted this listener; suddenly we were in the land of pop. In Doctorow’s story the dreamer Coalhouse is thwarted by the realities of racism. Nevertheless, according to Graham’s notes, for the final curtain we get a reprise of his upbeat earlier refrain. It sounded and felt perilously close to the inevitable “I’m Proud to be an American” anthem that frequents pops concerts. Baritone Matthew Wight mellifluously (no crooning) intoned the opening “I see his face / I hear his heartbeat” with eloquent wonder, and the chorus joined in the musical’s optimistic, simplistic yearning for justice: “He will travel with his head held high / just as far as his heart can go….”

The audience was ecstatic, and many stayed for the talkback.

 F. Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.
Brookline Symphony and Metropolitan Chorale under Lisa Graham (BMInt staff photo)

Brookline Symphony and Metropolitan Chorale under Lisa Graham (BMInt staff photo)

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