The first two programs of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s contributions to the three-week “Festival: Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope” delivered works devoted to promoting African American voices, while the final program (which I heard on Friday), under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero, gave voice to women.
The opener, Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs of Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) for orchestra and soprano soloist may quite possibly be the most widely heard piece of classical music composed in the last half-century. The second, co-commissioned by the BSO, the Chicago Symphony, the Nashville Symphony, the National Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony in 2019 for the approaching centenary of American women’s receiving the right to vote, had its 2020 premiere canceled due to the pandemic, but composer Julia Wolfe (b. 1958) took advantage of the delay to expand the work: Her Story was completed in 2022 [see BMInt feature HERE]. Described as one of Wolfe’s “documentary oratorios” and a “theatrical work with orchestra,” it centers on an amplified women’s chamber choir of five altos and five sopranos with a fairly large orchestra including a staggering range of percussion instruments, electric guitar, and electric bass guitar. If at first glance, the two works could hardly seem more different, some interesting parallels emerged: most significantly, each intended (though using different means) to achieve a powerful emotional response without slighting the intellectual aspect of the music and text.
Composed in late 1976, Górecki’s third symphony, made no waves for the first 16 years of its existence; then a 1992 recording made it an international sensation for reasons no doubt still being debated. On paper it seems quite unpromising, being composed of three movements, all slow, devoid of virtuosity and showmanship, with unexceptional orchestration: essentially a string orchestra augmented with flutes, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoons, horns, trombones, harp, and piano. For me, the solo soprano part, occurring in all three movements (the singer portrays a different person in each) provides the source of the work’s emotional impact: the words, sung in Polish but with English translation projected on a surtitle screen, are moving in themselves yet Górecki’s music further enhanced them. At times I marveled that the players could perceive a beat within Guerrero’s unusually curvaceous and fluid beat pattern, but they certainly did, and I have no doubt that he also elicited particularly expressive playing from them as well by this means.
The first movement forms a great arch to frame the first vocal solo. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, a native Polish speaker, imitating the rising string texture preceding her entrance, sang a 15th-century lament of the Virgin Mary addressed to Jesus Christ on the cross. Her long ascending figure on the words “share your wounds with your mother” felt profoundly moving. The end of the solo (“Speak to your mother, to make her happy, although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope”) brought the full string ensemble back, impassioned, to begin the gradual descent mirroring the initial build-up.
Contrasts, often sudden, are the striking feature of the second movement which opens with fresh, major chords that feel like a warm spring breeze but are quickly succeeded by dark, heavy minor thirds. Kurzak’s second solo sets the sentence scrawled onto the cell wall of a Gestapo prison by an 18-year-old Polish girl held there: “Mother, don’t cry.” A quasi-ecstatic passage follows, returning to the opening motif with voice added. In the end the girl sings the opening of the Polish Ave Maria, chanting on a single pitch. Kurzak as well as Guerrero and the orchestra very effectively contrasted light and dark sonorities in this unusual but gripping movement.
Alternating chords—tension and release—begin the third movement in hypnotic fashion. The sung text that enters almost right away is a folk lament: Kurzak here portrays a mother grieving her son who has been killed in an uprising. She asks his killers why they killed him and tells them that even if her bitter tears form another River Oder, they cannot bring her son back. The large central portion of this movement consists of several chord sequences repeated many times, yet this minimalist device, that has a stultifying effect in other contexts, here simply extends the mood of grief and questioning. But in the mother’s final cathartic words, she asks for God’s little songbirds to sing for her son “since his mother cannot find him” and for God’s little flowers to blossom all around so that he may sleep happily. An orchestral coda follows, bathing all in plush, warm A major chords. Before Guerrero dropped his hands, the hall experienced a profound, even reverent silence before the heartfelt ovation.
Ahead of Her Story, composer Julia Wolfe made a short speech thanking the Boston Symphony, conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, and giving special props to Beth Willer, artistic director of the Lorelei Ensemble, for promoting the idea of a piece to mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment (providing for American women’s suffrage), and helping Wolfe further develop the project during the stasis period of the pandemic. In reading the credits for a support staff of eight persons immediately following the performers’ bios (stage director, scenic/lighting/production designer, costume designer, sound designer, project manager, associate director, production stage manager, wardrobe assistant), one realized pretty quickly this show occupied a place outside the mainstream of ordinary orchestra subscription concerts.
The first of the work’s two parts, Foment, makes use of Abigail Adams’ 1776 letter to her husband, future President of the United States John Adams, excerpting such famous lines as “I desire you would Remember the Ladies . . . Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember, all Men would be tyrants if they could.” Garbed in floor-length black dresses in the manner of 17th-century Puritan women to emphasize their continuing domination by men in the late 18th century, the Lorelei singers yet showed the spirit of Abigail Adams’s free thinking and resistance to that domination. Their repetition of the quoted words showed their determination to seek something approaching equality, culminating in Abigail’s warning, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebellion.” Even within the physical constraints of Symphony Hall’s stage, the theatrical aspects of Her Story vied with the musical ones: the singers began in a row above and behind the orchestra players but regularly changed positions, sometimes locating themselves among the players, then seating themselves at the very front of the stage first facing the audience, later (mercifully briefly) with backs to them, then standing and facing us again. An elaborate
choreography of gestures threaded throughout the work: the ten singers all joined hands for a time, raised red-gloved right hands defiantly in the air or used them to clamp their own mouths to symbolize their voicelessness. Moreover, they made wardrobe changes on stage: they discarded the top parts of the Puritan dresses, then color appeared in both tops and skirts, and some bare arms emerged. Finally, the Lorelei singers held up placards that collectively spelled out (as they sang it as well) the all too predictable backlash from male supremacists: Unloving, Unstable, Unmarried, Uncouth, Unnatural, Un-American, etc. When this uncivil discourse escalated, the surtitles unaccountably stopped displaying the text for a time, but—as the Lorelei members were now literally shouting—some epithets were audible, e.g., “Communist! Socialist! Bolshevik!” accompanied by finger-pointing. These near-constant manifestations of the drama, combined with frequent fragmentation of the text, could fairly easily divert one’s attention from the accompanying music, which is a pity since Wolfe has created an interesting score, drawing on multiple sources. While avoiding the attempt to evoke “period” music—an impracticality given the nearly 150 years’ elapsed time between Abigail Adams’ letter and passage of the 19th Amendment—the composer has incorporated elements of folk and popular music in a fusion with innovative vocal/choral techniques and contemporary orchestral writing. And certainly, the use of electric and bass guitars bought one into the present.
Her Story did not strictly bind itself to linear chronology: if Part I (Foment) took us from Abigail Adams in the 1770s to the Bolshevism of the early 20th century, Part II (Raise) centered on the words of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth (aka Isabelle Baumfree, born a slave in New York State in 1797). “Look at me” and “Ain’t I a woman?” (the latter from 1851). Again, the surtitle screen declined to show much of the sung text, but fortunately the passage which inspired the title “Raise” rang out clearly: it set the caption of a 1915 political cartoon, itself a spoof of a pacifist song popular in the period before the U.S. entered World War I, “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.” In one of the most delectable moments, the singers assembled and seated themselves on the front of the stage to belt out in unison, repeatedly and sarcastically, “I didn’t raise my girl to be a voter.” Though the music continued engaging in Part II, I felt less involved because all too often I could not comprehend the sung text. The screen displayed a picture of Sojourner Truth with the words “May I say a few words . . .”—and yet ironically, no further words emerged. The amplification at times helped render sung text audible, but without guaranteeing comprehensibility. If Wolfe envisions Her Story as a 21st-century version of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, it needs to strike a better balance between the visual and the aural, such that a radio audience can still consistently enjoy listening to it without benefit of seeing costumes, choreography, surtitles, and so on. And in a way, I was sorry not to hear more of the Lorelei’s justly celebrated beautiful singing balancing the political discourse.
I hope Her Story finds a large audience throughout the country because, carping aside, it remains a powerful piece with many trenchant things to say at a time when women’s rights are again under attack, along with those of minorities. Accordingly, I again applaud the Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons for having the vision to program this festival, and I hope that this enlightened approach to programming remains a regular fixture at Symphony Hall. The National Symphony and San Francisco Symphony have upcoming performances.