Into the ears of his dying friend Laura Ahlbeck BSO principal oboe John Ferrillo whispered the consoling stanzas of Psalm 139 which free the spirit to “. . . drift anywhere it pleases.” Five years or so later, on behalf of the BSO, Ferrillo, commissioned Michael Gandolfi to honor the memory of his fellow oboist Ahlbeck with a setting of that psalm. Gandolfi writes of the germination:
I sought the help of Jill Peláez Baumgaertner, a Chicago poet, scholar, and Wheaton College Professor of English Emerita, whom I was fortunate to meet through an acquaintance of John’s. Jill provided the libretto for the cantata, which is comprised of writings of her own as well as Psalm 139 and lines from the 13th-century poet Rumi. We discussed how best to create the narrative, and Jill fashioned it in the form of a poem. The musical structure of the work is in the form of a dialogue cantata, of which there are several in the great canon of cantatas by J.S. Bach. These cantatas feature two singers, a male and female, where the female represents the soul and the male represents the savior—God or Jesus. Psalm 139 seemed well suited for this treatment. The work divides into three main parts, preceded by a sinfonia or overture, and followed by a coda. The first dramatic part states the predicate: a person in life, carefree, unaware of future challenges to life’s bliss, and incapable of connecting to spirituality, or listening to the word of God. The second part signals the harbinger of tragedy, of life gone awry, followed by a spiritual awakening. After this awakening, a portion of the sinfonia is heard and part three commences: the setting of Psalm 139, the culmination of this journey and the full awakening of the soul.
On Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall, the resulting semi-sacred duo-cantata Where can I go from your spirit? placed soprano Sophia Burgos and baritone John Brancy in front of a large Boston Symphony Chamber Players ensemble under conductor Anna Rakitina. With Elizabeth Rowe, flute; John Ferrillo, oboe; James Sommerville, horn; Haldan Martinson and Alexander Velinzon, violins; Steven Ansell, viola; Blaise Déjardin, cello; Edwin Barker, double bass; Timothy Genis, percussion; and Jessica Zhou, harp, Gandolfi could summon coloristic possibilities which stretched the chamber genre into orchestral dimensions. Gandolfi’s compositional voice, ever useful, evocative and audience-friendly, herein spread its triadic wings into a gossamer magical mystery tour of the exotic East over a tick-tock reminder that as youthful pleasures ebb, the grains of life run out. The textual quotations from Psalm 139 and Rumi and the focus on the fleeting of our years, also summoned the Rubaiyat. One wonders about the 12th-century connections between Rumi and Omar Khayyam and why Rumi is waxing while Khayyam is waning.
Liza Lehmann’s cautionary yet consoling In a Persian Garden, something of a 4-part cantata, kept coming to mind, as did the gentility of Menotti’s TV operas. Soprano Sophia Burgos, mostly quietly radiant, did conclude her spiritual embodiment with a room-filling declamation when she led us “…on the eternal way.” Baritone John Brancy intoned his more authoritative role with prophetic force. In focusing on the words of these almost Platonic dialogs, Gandolfi accompanied with discreet grace while entwining the pair in gorgeous solo lines from each of the players, especially Ferrillo’s plangent oboe, Sommerville’s poetic horn, Zhou’s heavenly harp and perhaps most significantly, Genis’s massive, exotic, and sparkling percussion arsenal. Gandolfi framed his satisfying work with a brilliantly orchestrated overture which compressed the story into its essence and a coda which dramatically summarized.
One wondered, when hearing the opener, Bartok’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet, and piano, just how many of the under-40s in the one-third filled hall had ever heard of the commissioners and dedicatees, Benny Goodman, and Joseph Szigeti. At the time they were both much more famous than the composer. Stephen Ledbetter notes of the work:
Bartók exploits the difference in sound production as much as possible. He had long since become a past master of violin effects—multi-stops, bowed and pizzicato notes played simultaneously, glissandi, and so on; now he investigates the possibilities of the clarinet as well, while keeping the piano part, which was conceived for himself, modestly in the background.
Violinist Haldan Martinson, clarinetist William Hudgins and pianist Vivian Choi gave full expression to the contrasts inherent in the work. Choi seemed content to accompany most of the time with punchy chords and winding arpeggios, as clarinet and violin duetted and exchanged riffs. Both Martinson and Hudgins executed cadenzas with jazzy and sinewy chops, alternately riotously and with calm warmth. After the somewhat mysterioso middle movement, Martinson introduced fast closing Sebes with the diabolical tritones on a scordatura instrument. The apotheoses of lively dance occasionally relaxed before the final violin cadenza inflamed the close.
For those who find the string quartet genre too thin (and the rest of us), the addition of the double bass delivers a sound foundation. Dvořák thoughtfully provisioned his early and deceptively labeled Quintet in G Major op 77 with a contrabass. Violinists Martinson, and Alexander Velinzon, violist Steven Ansell, cellist Blaise Déjardin, and double bass Edwin Barker, piled on with generosity of spirit and comfort in the hormonal outpourings, thick textures, contrasts, and repetitions, breathing as one fierce entity. Yet after the earlier relentlessness of the Scherzo, the Poco Andante third movement brought some tearful repose, especial when Déjardin got the tune. The Finale: Allegro assai, aside from some passing upper-string expressive sharpness, swayed with pleasure in the ensuing rumpus, finally reveling in op. 77’s bumptious bellowed coda. Workmanlike all around and occasionally moreso.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer