In the particularly rich choral scene of greater Boston, Coro Allegro has carved out its own special niche, not only for being a mixed chorus for LGBTQ+ folk and their allies but for its distinguished record of presenting world premieres, many commissioned by the chorus. At Old South Church on November 6th, Artistic Director David Hodgkins led “Letters to Our Children: Voices across Generations for LGBTQ+ Youth,” which included premieres originally intended for 2020 but twice postponed due to the pandemic. Throughout the program it collaborated with the Arneis Sring Quartet—violinist Heather Braun, violinist Rose Drucker, violist Daniel Doña, cellist Agnes Kim—and pianist Yulia Yun. The shorter works of the first half established a creed that music creates its own world and expresses what words alone cannot. The new work in the second half extended that purpose in ways more concrete and self-revelatory than the mostly 19th-century sensibilities of the first half’s poets could have foreseen.
When Music Sounds by Ronald Perera (b. 1941), formed a trilogy setting three famous poems about music: Walter de la Mare’s “When Music Sounds,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Music, When Soft Voices Die,” and Emily Dickinson’s “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.” In the first stanza of de la Mare’s poem, the instruments alternate with the chorus as though inspiring them to declamation. An enchanting moment came, though, when chorus and instruments united in the more intimate second stanza to describe the beauty of naiads rising out of water before the final stanza returned to the fanfare-like mood of the first. Shelley’s poem speaks of olfactory and aural memories, likening music vibrating in the memory to love that slumbers on even when its object is gone. The composer’s colorful and sumptuous harmonies fit the text well, and Hodgkin elicited a lovely, clear tone from his singers. While Dickinson’s poem refers to wrestling and “silver strife,” Perera’s setting, using largely introspective and searching music, underlined that it is metaphorical. The final stanza (“Some say it is the spheres at play!”) opened forte but closed reflectively on a lush but questioning chord.
The name of Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978), a Norwegian composer residing in the U.S., has appeared frequently on choral programs internationally for over a decade. Coro Allegro selected his paired pieces Dark Night of the Soul and Luminous Night of the Soul. The first sets three stanzas (out of eight) of a poem by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), opening with an urgent driving piano and strings accompaniment in the minor, contrasted with the long, legato lines of the chorus, speaking of a clandestine nocturnal love. A number of Gjeilo trademarks were in evidence, including non-verbal vocalises and humming, instruments accompanying singers and vice versa, and lush, neo-Romantic harmonies. A highlight was the warm sound of the men’s voices in the second stanza and a soaring soprano descant. Interestingly, the text of Luminous Night pairs a paean to the divine and the gift of music with an additional stanza from St. John’s mystical poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri (b. 1965). The composer opened with a pensive cello solo followed by gentle voices, creating a luminous atmosphere. While the two poems are not a natural pairing, Gjeilo successfully knit them together with music, making the final stanza a convincing ending to both poems. While the two works were not profound music, the composer was attentive to the text and made idiomatic use of voices, strings, and piano.
The works of the first half satisfied in their own rights, but they also served to set the scene for the large-scale work receiving its world premiere in the second half: Here I Am: I Am Here by Andrea Clearfield (b. 1960). The earlier pieces dealt with facing a crisis, triumphing over it, and the healing and transformative power of music, while Clearfield’s opus did much the same but with greater specificity, drawing on the experiences of its two narrators, Mimi Lemay and Sam Brinton: “two stories of mothers’ love for their children facing huge challenges in simply being their LGBTQ+ selves in society—and a story of the power of love of self.” Clearfield also scored her work for chorus accompanied by string quartet and piano but added soprano and tenor soloists. Part I: Mimi began with rather tense and uneasy music in the strings and piano growing to a small climax before soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad announced, “Here I am.” Lemay’s story of the birth of her child immediately followed: the baby was assigned female gender at birth, but “[w]hen we met, you were momentarily silent. You didn’t whisper, you didn’t cry, you roared, ‘Here I am!’” Clearfield then introduced all the components of the score, fragments of the narration being sung by the chorus, Tengblad, and the tenor soloist Jonas Budris to striking effect. Next Tengblad, given a gorgeous love song, sang radiantly as Mimi declared her and her husband’s huge love (“the length and width of the universe, and then some”) for their supposed second daughter. In “Our Em* is a Quirky Girl,” a few years later, the parents realize that Em is “no princess like her sister” and accept her tomboyhood with good-natured humor, underlined subtly by the music.
After more time passes, parents and child reach a crossroads; they worry about Em’s “pretending” and “obsession” while Em (tellingly now portrayed by Budris) has already declared his authentic gender, whispering “I am a boy.” By having the soprano collaborate with the chorus next, Clearfield helped us feel not only Mimi’s unwillingness to question her own assumptions but also her angst at losing her “precious daughter” and subsequent helplessness. Nonetheless, she comes to recognize that her child is possibly in danger even as she struggles to accept him as male (“Suicide risk. What is the treatment? Not my little girl . . . [n]ot happening”). Both Lemay and the chorus represented her being pulled in different directions at once, the narrator speaking over the choral texture. This whole sequence was musically compelling but emotionally fraught, and the composer wisely chose to give us some tender music next when Mimi’s unconditional love begins to reassert itself as she gropes for ways to shield her child from harm. The chorus seemed to air her thoughts (“Keep things fluid. Keep the door open. Keep listening”) before Mimi (Tengblad) actually voiced them. But however good her intentions, the loving mother has not yet worked out what is the “right” way to proceed. Her solutions are stopgap measures: “Cut your hair, out of box . . . boy and girl, home and school, live two lives . . . keep things fluid.” With all performers involved, the music and drama built to a powerful climax, finishing on the word “FRACTURE”. Part I ended not without hope but certainly unresolved.
Part II: Sam opened with a reprise of the music and text (“Here I am”) from the beginning of Part I, connecting the two separate stories. Sams story, however, begins as a naive 11-year-old. Sam’s father (a Southern Baptist missionary) hears that Sam finds an older boy “more interesting” than a Playboy magazine. “My parents were both Southern Baptist missionaries. Out of their deeply held faith and misguided love, they took me to a conversion therapist to cure me of my homosexuality.” It was perhaps Sam’s rude awakening to the homophobia of the larger society when the therapist referred to Sam as the last gay person left alive after AIDS, and an abomination to God. Budris held listeners spellbound with the tragic response “God hates me. God hates Sam”, with a ringing forte high note on the final word that tapered off, perfectly controlled, to silence. Subsequently, the string quartet and piano provided piercing accompaniment to the chorus which listed in awful detail the physically and psychologically torturous aversion therapy Sam undergoes in a futile attempt to effect a “cure.” Perhaps aware of this futility, Sam (Budris) voices a wish to die quickly rather than over a long tormenting process. Clearfield arranges the thoughts of Sam and Sam’s mother (Budris and Tengblad) in the form of an anguished dialogue, the former beseeching God to make Sam straight (Budris here used vibrato-less “straight” tone to depict the denial of reality), the mother saying she will love Sam “if you just change.” Here too events reach a crossroads, in which a child’s self-image differs fundamentally from the parents’ perception. Sam, trying to cope with unremitting pain, is reduced to desolate sentence fragments, voiced powerfully by the chorus: “Alone . . . Hidden . . . Stranded. Tortured. Ruined . . . Abandoned by God . . . Alone. To die.” Budris’s giving voice to Sam left the audience devastated: “Mommy, I tried. I really tried.” Brinton’s next narration relates desperation for the pain to end. After planning to jump off a rooftop, and a rescue by mother, Sam falsely propounded to her a conversion by God. (Brinton “knew it was a sin to lie, but it was a greater sin to commit suicide.”) Presumably, Sam’s parents later became aware of the lie, but later developments in Sam’s parental relationships are left unspoken.
At the Crossroads #3 came back to Mimi, gradually groping her way to letting go of her earlier hopes and expectations and finding a path to accepting that her “daughter” is in fact her son. The chorus seemed at first to represent the narrow, unsympathetic attitudes of society (“Em’s lost. Show her the way”) to which Mimi retorted, “What is the way?” In the end, she follows her earlier instincts—keeping “the door open” and listening, observing—while maintaining unconditional love for her child, using the same language as in Part I (“So how much do we love you? Eternally. The length and width of the universe, and then some”). In Lemay’s final narration, she confirmed her acceptance of her son Jacob by noting, “You weren’t confused. You knew where you belonged.” Budris movingly sang, “I want to be a boy, always. I want to be a boy named Jacob,” and Tengblad (Mimi) responded, “I believe you.” Part II ended movingly with the resolution missing from Part I: the loving mother accepting her son, addressing him by his chosen name: “Jacob, my love.”
Epilogue: Love Letters commenced with the adult Sam’s comforting letter to a younger, suffering self (Oh, little beautiful Sam”), first sung by Budris and the chorus, then further spoken by Sam in a final narration. Sam thanked that younger self for not committing suicide as this allowed the older Sam fall in love and marry: “Live life, little Sam, and know that you are loved.” Lemay then did likewise, reading a letter from the more experienced Mimi to young Jacob (no longer referred to as Em) in which she listed the signs of Jacob’s authentic identity that she had not perceived as such in the past. “It was then that I realized that we had indeed met before, but I had not truly recognized you that first time.” The work ended gently in a warm place of acceptance. While Clearfield earlier had used all the performers near-simultaneously mainly at places of high drama, this time they created an ethereal atmosphere that was at least as compelling as a grand triumph would have been, and the blissful conclusion did not cloy, thanks to references (albeit oblique) to the more troubled parts of both stories. Using these soul-baring stories to create a compelling musical narrative was no small assignment, particularly when the authors were also participating in the performance; Andrea Clearfield employed sensitivity and skill, resulting in a fine work that received thunderous acclaim.
* Em is a pseudonym for the discarded female birth name. Likewise, the pronouns “she” and “her” represent Jacob’s parents’ initial assumptions about his gender before he declared himself.