Thursday 24 October 2013

Ned Rorem - Evidence of Things Unseen

Ned Rorem
Ned Rorem
Nigel Foster and the London Song Festival opened their autumn season on 24 October 2013 with a concert at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, celebrating Ned Rorem's 90th birthday.Accompanied by Nigel Foster on the piano, soprano Gillian Keith, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, tenor Nicholas Mulroy and baritone Ben McAteer performed Rorem's Evidence of Things Not Seen. Evidence of Things Not Seen is Rorem's song cycle from 1997 which sets a wide variety of poets from William Penn and Thomas Ken, to WH Auden, Langston Hughes and Paul Monette. 36 songs in a single epic sweep lasting 100 minutes.

The work was written in 1997 and all but two of the songs were written by Rorem specifically for the cycle. He has grouped the songs into three sections, Beginnings, Middles, Ends, and the theme is all human existence from birth to death. With such a complex set of texts, the cycle has a fascinatingly operatic feel to it in the way that there seems to be an underlying drama running through with different songs interacting and commenting on each other. Rorem emphasises this by having some songs sung by groups of singers, the cycle is by no means a sequence of 36 solo songs.

The theme of love is, of course, one that threads its way prominently through the songs but, being a work by Ned Rorem this means that in addition to Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning we get more homo-erotic texts. Then in the final section, last two great songs on the subject of death are both meditations on AIDS (by Mark Doty and Paul Monette). It is still remarkably rare to find such subjects touched on in art songs, and it is testament to Rorem's skill that he weaves these themes so successfully into the rest of the cycle.

The work opens with From whence cometh song (Theodore Roethke 1908-1963) in which tenor Nicholas Mulroy's question was answered in each verse by one of the other soloists in turn, creating a rather dramatic opening to. But one which had a certain austerity and perhaps, edginess too. All four singers joined together for The Open Road (Walt Whitman 1819 - 1892) set in the manner of a vividly dramatic operatic ensemble. These two marked the song cycle down as being something rather special and different, and the performances from all four singers were notable.

O where are you going (W.H. Auden 1907 - 1973) was the first of a number of Auden settings in the cycle and each time Rorem seems to have responded with a bluesy/jazz tinge to the music. Here Auden's enigmatic verses were set by Rorem call and response style - again this was something that he used a lot in the cycle to articulate the dialogue in the poems. For The Rainbow (William Wordsworth 1770 - 1850) Rorem set the text as a sort of part song sung by Keith, Mulroy and McAteer. A lovely piece, both thoughtful and passionate.

The first real solo number came next, How Do I love Thee (Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806 -1861), given a strongly dramatic performance by Johnston. Rorem has written it in the style of a dramatic invocation with the voice simply interrupted by the piano, before developing into a more lyric yet still spiky setting of Barrett Browning's words. And Johnston gave the words their full value. In an interesting example of how Rorem has linked his songs, this song segued directly into Lfe in a love (Robert Browning 1812 - 1869) with Johnston being joined by McAteer in a direct suggestion of a dramatisation of the relationship between the two poets. Both McAteer and Johnson gave Browning's words their full value. Their duet was beautifully hypnotic with Rorem using canonic writing a lot. Vividly passionate, the performers made the piece rather thrilling.

Keith's performance of Their Lonely Betters (W.H. Auden 1907 - 1973) was calm by contrast, with a sense of the setting being words inflected by music. A moment for pause, but certainly not a simple one. Keith was then joined by Mulroy for His Beauty Sparkles (Paul Goodman 1911 - 1972). A curiously enigmatic song with soprano and tenor singing the words in canon, not to each other but as if each has been transfixed by the same man.  The result, combined with Rorem's setting, created something rather eerie and unsettling. Mulroy then gave us the glorious lyric beauty of Boy with a Baseball Glove (Paul Goodman 1911 - 1972) making us wonder, was this the same boy who sparkled for him in the previous song.

A glimpse (Walt Whitman 1819 - 1892) brought another hint of jazz into the music, with Rorem's laid-back setting of Whitman given a lovely relaxed feel by McAteer. A simpler, more direct example of homo-eroticism, McAteer and Foster turned the song into something profoundly moving. The closing of this song was almost interrupted by Mulroy singing Whitman's I am he, a piece of wonderfully rapturous writing.

After all of Whitman's erotic rapture, we get Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 - 1950) in Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath. A piece of devastating writing whose lyric drama was brought out by Johnston whilst Foster articulated the fast brilliance of Rorem's piano writing. The brilliant piano continued into The more loving one (W.H. Auden 1907 - 1973) with McAteer vivid and passionate in the surprisingly dramatic vocal line, but with a lovely throw away ending.

Part one finished with a hymn like setting of Thomas Ken's (1637 - 1711) Hymn for Morning, with the piano interjecting between verses and leaving the singers mainly unaccompanied.

Part two, Middles opened with a dramatic recitation from Johnson, I was a mass of matter of a dull gloomy color (John Woolman 1720 - 1772) This was very strong stuff, given a deeply felt performance by Johnston. Throughout the cycle it was noticeable that Rorem reserved the mezzo-soprano for some of his most strongly dramatic, direct utterance. This continued with The Comfort of Friends (William Penn 1644 - 1718) also sung by Johnston almost as an extension of the previous piece. Rorem writes in a long, pregnant pause before the final consoling lines about the 'Comfort of Friends'.

A dead statesman (Rudyard Kipling 1865 - 1936) was another song which I found somewhat enigmatic, the off-beat rather jazzy music sung by Mulroy contrasting strongly with Kipling's downbeat text. The same musical feel continued into the next song, The Candid Man (Stephen Crane 1871 - 1900) sung by all four singers.

Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) Comment on War is a profoundly ironic text, but here given as a very dead-pan romantic duet for Keith and Johnson.  Keith's contribution became brilliantly virtuosic in the second Stephen Crane setting, A learned man.

Dear, though the night is gone (W.H.Auden 1907-1973) deals with a couple splitting up, with Auden delaying the punch until the end of the very final verse. Rorem's setting was relatively simple, with the voice almost unaccompanied and McAteer responded with a very intent and vivid performance. This was another highlight, a dramatic and very moving performance.

Oscar Wilde's (1854-1900) Requiescat was set rather as a hymn or partsong, sung by Keith, Johnston and McAteer; beautifully poised and very expressive.

Is my team ploughing (A.E. Housman 1859-1936) is familiar in settings by RVW and Butterworth. Here Rorem followed RVW in missing out some of Housman's less felicitous verses. Sung as a duet by Mulroy and McAteer, Rorem's setting contrasted Mulroy's florid ghost with McAteers more stolid but still uneasy survivor. The two singers gave a very involving performance and made rather strong stuff of the piece.

W.H.Auden's A I Walked Out One Evening returned us to the rather spiky, jazzy piano with Rorem setting the poem with tenor Mulroy as narrator and the other three singing the dialogue. Given the rather catchy syncopated rhythms and the way Rorem chose to articulate the text, the result was slightly enigmatic and not a bit eerie.

In The Sick Wife (Jane Kenyon 1947 - 1995) we had mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston giving us another strong performance. A simple and direct song, but a very effective one with a slow build to it which underpinned Kenyon's words.  Now is the dreadful midnight (Paul Goodman 1911 - 1972) started with the words slowly intoned by Keith, with spiky piano interludes, but as the poem develops Rorem's setting gets faster and more florid. Another unsettling number. Part two finished with a second Thomas Ken setting, Hymn for Evening, again in a lovely hymn-like setting with the voices largely unaccompanied.

Part three, Ends opened with Ned Rorem's own English version of Julien Green's original French in He thinks upon his death. The piano starts by simply tolling a single note and this continued as a theme throughout the accompaniment. A straightforward narrative setting of the text, McAteer gave a powerfully direct performance which brought out the underlying complexities of the song.

Rorem's own English version of Colette's original French was the text for On an echoing road, a lovely duet for Keith and Johnston with the use of canon and unison mirroring the way the two horses trot in unison and out of step. The piano brought a feeling of constantly moving, and the whole had a gorgeously attractive sound world.

Nicolas Mulroy brought an elegant melancholy and a nice sense of conviction to A terrible disaster (Paul Goodman 1911-1972), about  never recovering from a broken heart.  Then Come In (Robert Frost 1874 - 1963) sung by McAteer was almost but not quite a waltz. WB Yeats (1865-1938) The old men admiring themselves in the water was turned into something slightly spooky. Rorem had again broken the text up with Johnston narrating and Mulroy and Keith singing the dialogue.

End of the Day set Rorem's translation of Charles Beaudelaire's original in a lovely lyric duet for Johnston and Mulroy which formed a very consoling moment before the strong drama to follow.

Mark Doty's (born 1953) Faith is a long narrative poem about living with the effects of AIDS. Rorem's setting concentrates on this narrative sense, ignoring the metre and scansion of Doty's text. McAteer gave a profoundly vivid performance which, as the song developed, became increasingly unsettling until the really shocking drama at the end. In complete contrast, the setting of Paul Monette's (1945 - 1995) Elegy (Even now the night jasmine is pouring) was full of lyric rapture, albeit with a dramatic edge, superbly rendered by Mulroy. The music then slipped straight into Evidence of Things not seen (William Penn 1644 - 1718) which brought the cycle to a consoling end.

The cycle was performed, as per the composer's instructions, without an interval and without applause between the songs. The result was to create something with a stunningly epic sweep. Whilst individual songs might not always be strong, they combine into something profoundly moving. The performances from the four singers were exemplary and selfless, with some highly beautiful moments, some very moving ones and some very unsettling and shocking ones.

A particular hurrah must go to the sterling work of Nigel Foster. For the original performances of the cycle, two pianists were used, but here Foster played the entire 100 minutes himself without a rest. He accompanied sympathetically throughout and brought out the different dazzling textures of Rorem's piano writing, often not accompanying the singers but commenting and interrupting; very much an additional character in the drama.

The evening was preceded by an illuminating pre-concert talk by Adriana Festeu.

This was a stunning evening, and with performances of such power I do hope that the event stimulates other people into performing Rorem's songs.

The London Song Festival continues next week with a songs by Britten, Poulenc and Schubert performed by Elizabeth Wattes and Ashley Riches, on 30 October 2013.

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