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Meditating on the “Bounded Fields of Time”


Oliver Caplan, featured composer

All of us — well, except those who achieve Nirvana — rebel against time. We want to hold onto it, retrieve it, freeze it, even reverse it. And humans have always yearned for a release from time’s iron grip – an impossible return to an Edenic existence. (And what is a heavenly afterlife but lux aeterna in a timeless realm free from pain and striving?) In the founding Judeo-Christian narrative, Adam and Eve brought humankind sin, misery and death (not to mention the pain of childbirth) by eating that damned apple and acquiring a godlike knowledge of good and evil.

In one way and another, Boston debut of the New Hampshire Master Chorale will be a meditation on time and human existence through wide-ranging contemporary music including the premiere of Bostonian Oliver Caplan’s response to the 2017 racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. His We Exist, pleads for a universal humanity.

The 22-voice Chorale and chamber orchestra under the direction of Dan Perkins will perform the show at Friday, June 22nd at First Church Boston at 8:00 P.M, Saturday the 23rd at 7:00 P.M. in the First Congregational Church in Concord, NH on Sunday the 24th at 4:00 P.M. at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Plymouth, NH. My program notes summarize it thus:

Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament sets Saint Silouan’s imagining of Adam’s boundless remorse over that transgression. The saint, born Simon Ivanovich Antonov in western Russia in 1866, contemplated God and the human condition from a monastery on Greece’s holy Mount Athos.

In Silouan’s lament, sung in Russian, Adam’s grief stems not only from his banishment from paradise but from the murder of his son Abel by his brother Cain — the original fratricide. “Peoples and nations will descend from me…and they will live in enmity and seek to slay one another,” Adam laments. It’s a theme that will find an echo later in this concert.

But Master Chorale music director Dan Perkins believes Adam’s (and Eve’s) original “sin” was somehow inevitable. It’s deeply part of who we are — what it means to be Homo sapiens, with the emphasis on “sapient” (knowing). “Though Genesis paints the choice of Adam and Eve as sin/fall/transgression,” Perkins says, “it seems to me it was really the choice they were expected to and needed to make in order to fulfill God’s plan.”

Pärt’s musical setting of Adam’s anguish is both astringent and resonant. It sounds ancient and contemporary at the same time — a quality that no doubt accounts for Pärt’s wide appeal. According to the classical music website Bachtrack, the 82-year-old Estonian is the world’s most frequently performed contemporary composer. (The Master Chorale performed Pärt’s Te Deum in 2013.)

Among Pärt’s choral works, Adam’s Lament may be the most textually sensitive. When Adam weeps bitterly, heartsick for God, Pärt has the tenors reach for an aching minor ninth. When he recalls the gladness of his soul before the Fall, when God was with him, the music is lyrical and wistful. Throughout, the chorus represents humanity while the strings represent the voice of God. At the end, the orchestra drops away, leaving Adam’s descendants to plead with an absent God to bestow on them (us) “the spirit of humility and love.”

Pärt’s Fratres (“Brothers”), for string orchestra, illustrates what he calls his tintinnabuli (bell-like) style of composition, in this case based on a set of nine chord sequences. The piece alternates frenetic activity with stillness, illustrating the composer’s belief that “the instant and eternity are struggling within us.” There’s that time motif again.

Moira Smiley’s innovative Time in Our Voices, which gives this concert its title, ventures into a very different sonic landscape. Both playful and profound, Smiley’s five-movement piece encompasses the life cycle, from childhood and adolescence through the prime of life and old age. One of my favorite lines introduces the fourth “adult” movement: “Into our bounded fields of time, whose edges we glance now and then.”

The piece uniquely captures the way the human voice embodies the passage of time, by interweaving choral passages with prerecorded spoken voices that represent the corresponding ages, played over smartphones. “The timbre of your voice is so important in expressing what you mean and where you’re from and how old you are,” Smiley says. “I haven’t heard art that lovingly points to this change in our instruments as we grow. I was interested in pointing it out and playing around with it.”

Perkins says when he heard the premiere of Time in Our Voices last year in Los Angeles, he was “attracted to the messiness of juxtaposing the recorded voices with the beautiful choral writing. It really worked for me, not as a gimmick, but as a strong effect and a statement.”

Smiley, who lives in Vermont, is an accomplished singer who’s comfortable in musical genres from classical to folk (traditional and contemporary) to world music. Her music-making is all about inclusiveness. Lately she’s been volunteering at refugee camps in France and Greece, working with “people who have nothing and make beautiful connections with each other from nothing” through music.

Time in Our Voices is also about making connections among people often seen as “different,” with a focus on generational differences. “We live in a youth-oriented culture in which generations become strangers to each other,” the 42-year-old composer says. In other words, ageism divides us. In its gentle way, Time in Our Voices is an antidote for those who will listen, and reflect.

Finally, we hear the premiere of Boston composer Oliver Caplan’s composition We Exist, commissioned by the Master Chorale.

Like the preceding pieces, We Exist, is also, well, existential. The lyric is by Naseem Rakha, an Oregon-based poet, novelist and journalist whom Caplan met several years ago at an artists’ colony in Wyoming. (He was working at the time on Eve Absinthe Alice, his first Master Chorale commission, which had its premiere in the fall of 2016.) We Exist is a collaboration born out of their response to the deadly violence that occurred 10 months ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a clash between Nazi-inspired white nationalists and counter-protesters.

Caplan says he was “shocked in every fiber of my being to see in 2017 these open displays of racial hatred, antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia and sexism. It was a moment that couldn’t be ignored. It was the catalyst that drove this piece.” With a draft of Rakha’s poem in hand, Caplan reached out to Perkins about a new commission.

The writer Richard Knox will also be singing.

Similarly moved by the events in Charlottesville, Perkins didn’t need a hard sell.  He says We Exist “became the genesis of this program,” an embodiment of yearning for universal community of “old young dark light/all faiths/all genders/all races.”

Though without explicit reference to the tragedy in Charlottesville, We Exist speaks of the need to resist “downdrafts of doubt” and “the shrapnel stabs of hate” created by age-old tribal hatreds going back to Cain and Abel. But in essence the piece is a hopeful answer to Adam’s despair.

“It’s an affirmation of our common humanity,” Caplan says, “but it also has this element of a call to action…this idea that we can band together to be something greater. It begins with ‘one’ voice and ends by addressing ‘you.’ And it brings the conversation to a space where we don’t normally hear it — the classical concert hall.”

Richard Knox covered health and science for the Boston Globe and NPR and is now a senior correspondent for WBUR and its blog CommonHealth. A baritone, he has sung with the Boston Cecilia and the All Saints (Brookline) choir; since moving to New Hampshire in 2015, he’s been a member of the New Hampshire Master Chorale.

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