“Whither Must I Wander?,” a collaboration between Longy faculty members Tyler Reece (baritone) and Wayman Chin (piano), celebrated the romantic ideal of the wanderer, the one who is “ever open to the possibilities of life.” On Friday evening, a capacity crowd eagerly received one of the most interesting and well-conceived programs I’ve witnessed in Boston. It featured Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel interpolated with songs by Charles Ives; selections from Schubert bookended the augmented cycle. The multi-media performance utilized multiple stages around Longy’s Edward M. Pickman hall; Reece and Chin delivered the two smaller sets of Schubert from the elevated stage while the rest were performed from a second piano on the floor, dramatizing the act of wandering as they processed from piano to piano, and cyclically returning to where the journey began. As floor seating became scarce with many community members and students, some had to find seats in the balcony. I thought about joining them for the better view but did not regret my front row seat.
A PowerPoint presentation of quotes from figures as disperse as Charlotte Eriksson, Galileo, Goethe, and Donna Hope was projected on the front wall. The texts meditated on various aspects of wandering, both in the physical and emotional sense, and effectively commented on Vaughan Williams’s and Ives’s songs. (Tolkien’s by-now-hokey “… not all those who wander are lost…” was not cited, though Vaughan Williams often sounded such sentiments.) The words “sleep” and “solitude” peppered the panoply of theophanic images. Many around me responded audibly to these provocative messages as slides chanted, particularly to Einstein’s quote about living in “that solitude, which is painful in youth, but delicious in maturity” which imbued Youth and Love and Disclosure with a vulnerable, reflective air.
For two composers who seem diametrically opposed, their music proved surprisingly complementary. Though born within two years of each other and dying four years apart, their aesthetics can be markedly different, their boundary pushing felt akin. The Vaughan Williams-Ives-Williams-Ives sandwich made for a feast of sorts, but the final Schubert Lieder sat uncomfortably on the plate. Der Schiffer provided an up-beat ending to the program, but it required Chin to brush through Vaughan William’s sublime coda to “I have trod the upward and the downward slope;” and the subsequent stage movement gave the audience too much time to clap and cheer (deservedly so) over Ives’s wistful E6 add2 chord that graces the last note of The Waiting Soul.
Reece’s versatile baritone ideally suited the rep. He used his silvery tenorial range to charm our ears with a passionate tone that soared gloriously over the piano; he possessed a sufficiently focused bottom to lend gravitas without getting muddy. As a singing actor, he appeared to be intimately in tune with his breaths, especially in the Lieder, and employed effective gestures. He could not have found a more attentive collaborator in Chin. The two used the pauses between numbers to great effect. Some songs had long set ups, even requiring the two to make eye contact before they began. Others began when Chin launched into them attacca without even flipping a page. The careful timings heightened the drama, giving us moments of reflection and relief as well as whiplash when jerked into pain-filled songs. Fortunately, I sat rather close to the piano and could enjoy the very creative amalgamation of books and photocopies Chin had precariously arranged with tape to facilitate the flow of the program.
Comfortable tempi allowed Reece to sing in a very naturalistic way, close to the speed of speech. Reece could have delivered Vaughan Williams’s songs with deeper engagement, but his detachment worked for the spoken lines in Ives’s Walking. Reece became noticeably more animated in Ives’s An Old Flame, presenting this sentimental ballad, which never fails to touch a nerve, with the ideal blend of dramatic expression and restraint.