With his long gun, lustrous hair, and leather britches, the attractive, ambitious hunter-dauber John James Audubon cut a swath through the American South and London high society, making a killing in the European market for depictions of exotic plants and animals. His life, as described in journals and his courtly epistolary writings (perhaps commonplace for a Francophone of his era), inspired U-Chicago composer-librettist James Kallembach’s dramatic multimedia oratorio Audubon. In the world premiere last night at Jordan Hall, a sometimes levitating Jamie Kirsch led the Chorus pro Musica, baritone Sumner Thompson, and assorted minor tableaux vivant.
After a scrum caused by incompetent ticket scanning, orchestra, chorus, and audience then endured something of a marketing speech from the director of the co-sponsoring Massachusetts Audubon Society, plus Richard Rhodes’s long, interesting expansion of his own program notes. Not until 40 minutes after the scheduled start did we heard a note of music
What was not to like about Kallembach’s useful, non-threating, community chorus-safe amalgam of Holst, Copland, and Randall Thompson with a slash or two of Bernard Herrmann, or for that matter the polished execution of chorus and orchestra? Kallembach engaged deeply with his subject, it seemed, and emerged in my first hearing as a colorful and imaginative orchestrator, word painter, and provider of singable lyrical lines for players, choristers, and soloist.
Costumed convincingly with fine wig, blouse, britches, and sash, Sumner Thompson commanded the stage for the duration of the two substantial acts. His creamy but powerful delivery filled the hall with more tonal variety than was to be had from the washed-out widescreen that apparently diminished the intended palette of Kathy Wittman’s scan-and-pan video-supertitles. Despite being on book, Thompson fully emerged as the man.
No one who owns a hat can have any objection to being in the company of birds, and all but the most cynical of us can be moved by the stories of their wanton slaughter and extinction; some might even imagine last night’s apotheosis of Audubon’s words as a newly cautionary tale for this planet.
The show began as Thompson read a passage from Audubon’s account of his bankruptcy and his subsequent determination to drift down to Louisiana to commence the work for which he found himself fitted—hunting, eating, and recording “The Birds of North America”—before the orchestral overture added cap pistols to the percussion armament. A hoedown ensued, quite in keeping with the VistaVision suggestion of a Western. Thompson followed with the first of 13 warm, liquid evocations of birds and of his absent wife. Addressing his next aria to a jug-swilling drunkard, he introduced the Phoebe as a bird “whose biography is connected to his own.” The chorus responded and explicated with “Lift all my thoughts toward Heaven / To the sublime creator of all.”
Over a dramatic arc, Thompson’s committed and honeyed delivery of Kallembach’s stanza adaptations of Audubon’s journal entries and letters alternated with choral responses. At the zenith, in the first really big choral number, the stirring and pleasingly orotund 100-voice chorus wondered, “O great poet, where art though, wilt though not come to my country? / . . . and stop their ravages of nature?” Though well-sung and well-set, this episode posed the question whether, in deifying the Vogelfänger–Saloniste as a frontier Walt Whitman, Kallembach perhaps succumbed to idealistic overreach. Nevertheless, the music and words affected us far beyond their lesser potency as conventional love letters and marketing journal entries.
Probably Kallembach could wring emotion from a dictionary. He turned an 1826 review of an exhibition of bird prints into a “… real and palpable vision of the New World.” Methinks the reviewer meant “depiction” rather than a metaphysical “Vision.” Yet one can’t help welcoming this sentiment. And last night one could not help regarding Kallembach and Chorus pro Musica as welcome “Kings of Song,” Audubon’s moniker for the mockingbird.
The full-ruby-throated final chorus celebrated the naturalist’s planned return to the embrace of his dear wife, Lucy, as vividly as any passion chorale.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer