By Arthur R. Smith
Baritone Will Liverman and pianist Myra Huang begin the program with a very familiar text in an unfamiliar setting. Goethe’s grim ballad “Erlkönig” from 1782 tells the story of a child on horseback with his father, speeding through the night. In each stanza the child is tempted by a spirt, the elf-king whose, temptations increasingly terrify him.
As a lied, this is best known in the setting by Franz Schubert—one of his most harrowing works, complete with the driving fury of octaves that barrel down on the listener from the first measures. Carl Loewe (1796-1869), a song and ballad composer who was admired by Goethe, provides the version we hear tonight. Loewe creates an equally powerful picture—but drawn on a realistic scale, rather than the fantastical image in Schubert. Here the elf-king is embodied beguiling arpeggios as the music pauses. And in another contrast, the end delivers its tragic shock softly.
We next turn to lieder by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), three works forming a triptych of three of the composer’s modes. In “Wie solten wir geheim sie halten,” from 1888, we get the ardent Strauss—the protagonist bursting with love that transforms nature into an emblem of a passion. (Flowers, brooks, and trees fulfill their classic lieder duty of listening attentively.) “Traum durch die Dammerung” brings us murmurs at dusk—this almost seems a Strauss ‘torch song,’ the seductive melody unfolding over a gentle ripple of a piano line. The set closes with the composer in his “rapture” mode. “Zueignung” unfolds its affirmations in broadly sweeping melodies that unfold over an accompaniment that lacks nothing for passion of its own.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote the set of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée songs intending them for use in a film of the Cervantes novel directed by G.W. Pabst. In the event, they were not used—Pabst chose a set by Jacque Ibert which were performed by the great bass Feodor Chaliapin, who played the title character. Ravel’s works have remained a concert favorite, however, with the light touch that French composers going back at least to Bizet, bring to Spanish rhythms and themes. This is an elegant, and poetic Don Quichotte, whose exploits are somehow wise. These works from 1933 were the last Ravel wrote. He was already afflicted with the neurodegenerative disease that would rob him of his memory and motor control.
Feodor Chaliapin provides a link to the next work, Rachmaninov’s “Fate,” to a bleak narrative poem by Aleksey Apukhti. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote this at the end of the 1890s for Chaliapin, and you’d have to look to the most tragic moments in Russian opera for its equal as a dramatic scena. The central musical idea is the opening motive of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which recurs throughout, except for a gentle lyrical moment in which happiness seems on the brink of possibility. But the “knock, knock, knock” insistently reminds that all happiness comes to an end. This theme resonated with Rachmaninov, who had already had great professional and personal setbacks, particular the disastrous premiere of his first symphony.
Composer Michael Ippolito provides this note for his cycle The Long Year, a commission by Vocal Arts DC receiving its world premiere in this performance.
The Long Year is a set of seven songs to poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). On the surface, this set is simply a collection of seasonal nature poems, arranged according to a calendar year (starting with winter, moving through spring, summer, and fall, and ending with winter). But beneath the surface, something seems to be wrong with the state of nature in these poems, or humanity’s relationship to the natural world. While Millay wrote these words in the first part of the twentieth century, I couldn’t help reading our current climate collapse into these texts. Through that lens, these songs express my own longing for a return to a right relationship with the landscape, and other living beings, and with the weather and the progression of the seasons, but also my awareness that this relationship is irretrievably lost. The Long Year resides in this state of longing for something you know is gone forever.
The title comes from another poem, one of Millay’s masterful sonnets:
But you were something more than young and sweet
And fair, — and the long year remembers you.
The recital closes with an arrangement of a traditional spiritual song by acclaimed multi-genre and multi-faceted musician Damien Sneed, “All Night All Day.” Educated at Howard University, Peabody Conservatory and New York University, among other institutions, he is on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, where he teaches courses in conducting, African American Music History, piano, voice, and composition, as well as leading ensembles. This is in addition to a career as a performer, conductor, arranger, and producer for arts organizations nation-wide including, to mention only a few, Houston Grand Opera, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Carnegie Hall, and his own ensembles, including 70-piece Chorale LeChateau. For more information visit, https://www.damiensneed.com/