The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill hosted two distinctly different concerts Dec. 11: . Lyric Fest presented “My Letter to the World: Emily Dickinson – Biography in Music” at 3 p.m.; then, at 7:30 p.m., Piffaro’s “Let the Holidays Resound: A Christmas, Hanukkah and Solstice Celebration.”
Over the span of seven hours, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill hosted two distinctly different concerts Saturday, Dec. 11. Lyric Fest presented “My Letter to the World: Emily Dickinson – Biography in Music” in the church’s intimate chapel at 3 p.m.; then, at 7:30 p.m., the site of musical activity moved to the church’s main sanctuary for Piffaro’s “Let the Holidays Resound: A Christmas, Hanukkah and Solstice Celebration.”
Both concerts were heard by an audience that filled their spaces (vaccinated and masked) with audiences that showered the performers with accolades of delight.
I’ve never been much of a fan of poetry, from this or any other era reaching all the way back to antiquity. I suspect that my mind is simply too mundane to appreciate the high-flying imagery of poetic texts. The one exception to that rule has always been the poems of Emily Dickinson. Perhaps because she, herself, disdained that over-the-top extravagance and preferred, instead, a more down-to-earth approach to imagery that her writing has always spoken more directly to my mind, my heart, and my spirit than the poetry of any other bard.
Not surprisingly, I’ve always found myself taken by the efforts of 20th & 21st century composers of songs that were settings of Dickinson’s poems. Perhaps their concisely conceived structures, the vibrant rhythms of her choices of words, and the spikey nature of her images appealed to modern musicians just as they have appealed to me.
Lyric Fest’s program was performed by soprano Christine Lyons, mezzo Pascale Spinney, tenor Aaron Crouch and baritone Gregory Feldman. All four were accompanied by Lyric Fest co-director Laura Ward of Chestnut Hill at PCCH’s vintage Steinway & Sons grand piano. The group’s other co-director, Suzanne DuPlantis of East Falls, provided simple yet insightful narration.
The list of composers whose music was sung and played formed a “who’s who” of modern masters: Libby Larsen, Ernst Bacon, Arthur Farwell, Jake Heggie, George Walker, Carlisle Floyd, Logan Skelton, Celius Dougherty, Andre Previn, Ernest Gold, Aaron Copland, Scott Gendel, Vincent Persichetti, Craig Urquhart, Lee Hoiby, William Bolcom, Lori Laitman, Daron Hagen and Richard Hundley.
Although each composer set Dickinson’s poetry in their own individual, idiosyncratic fashion, the artistic link that connected each one to all the others was the intensity of emotional and spiritual delineation that marked the integrity of every word the “Bard of Amherst” ever wrote and that inspired an equal level of intense integrity of communication on the part of every composer who set her words to music.
More often than not, I first found myself dazzled by the sharp precision of her observations and the simplicity of means that she always employed. But then, upon further consideration, I was often brought to tears by the honest with which she viewed the world around her and its relationship with herself and her relationship with that wider world that surrounded her – and so often misunderstood her.
If ever there was a time for Dickinson’s poetry, that time is now, as we find ourselves distanced from so many of our loved ones and even estranged from ourselves. And the music it inspired was both powerful and touching, always remaining faithful to its original fount in inspiration.
All four soloists sang beautiful from a sonic standpoint and powerfully from the point of emotional delineation. Lyon’s voice rang with sterling clarity, Spnney sang in darkly colored hues, Crouch‘s voice sparkled with clarion brilliancy, and Feldman sang with deeply supported resonance. Ward’s playing at the Steinway created a world of tonal underpinning that both rumbled and roared as well as soothed and inspired.
Co-directors Joan Kimball & Robert Wiemken assembled a multi-faceted roster of music that caught the feel of how the holidays – Christian, Jewish and “pagan” if I can use that antiquated term! – were once celebrated throughout the centuries up to and including the Renaissance.
Among the Christian traditions, they included music from Germany, France, Spain and England. For Hanukkah, it was the patrimony of the Sephardic Jewish people spread out along the Mediterranean coast of the ancient Roman Empire. For the pre-Christian repertoire, it was England that provided Kimball & Wiemken with more fertile fields, perhaps because the island of Britain never suffered the rampages of the so-called Holy Roman Empire. Those continental selections testified to the prevalence of Marian poetry (focusing on the Virgin Mary’s role in Christmas) in all the music that featured singing.
Piffaro delivered a delightful performance Saturday evening. The playing and singing were scintillating, the perfect pick-me-up as we approached the darkest day of the year.
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