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S & H International Concert Review

R.W. Emerson Bicentennial Festival, Hosted by John Hollander, New York Society for Ethical Culture, New York City, May 13th , 2004 (BH)

Cygnus Ensemble
Tara Helen O’Connor, flute
Calvin Wiersma, violin
Robert Ingliss, oboe, English horn
Susannah Chapman, cello
Oren Fader, guitar
William Anderson, guitar, mandolin, banjo
Haleh Abghari, soprano
Judith Bettina, soprano
Lucy Shelton, soprano
Starobin Duo, guitar and percussion
Stephen Gosling, piano
James Goldsworthy, piano
Julia Barenboim, soprano
James Welsch, tenor


If a bomb had been dropped on the pleasantly dowdy Ethical Culture Society this evening, it would have claimed the lives of Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, and Mario Davidovsky, plus a number of distinguished advocates for contemporary music. All of them were in the audience for a celebration of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work, marking the 200th anniversary of his birth.

I was able to catch the second of the evening’s two parts, and arrived just as the excellent Sarah Lawrence Improvisation Ensemble began John Cage’s Music for 3, which included some unintentional humor. With the three musicians scattered around the hall, Elliott Carter arrived shortly after the music began and said quite loudly, audible to everyone, "It doesn’t matter where we sit, since I can’t hear anything anyway." As the chuckling rippled through the crowd, I couldn’t help but savor the moment, as one of the world’s greatest living composers created a true Cage-ian image.

Lucid and intelligent performances abounded, with the superb Cygnus Ensemble as the evening’s solid core. Soprano Lucy Shelton was in gorgeous voice for Carter’s Of Challenge and Of Love, with the commanding Stephen Gosling in typically keen form at the piano. Shelton should get points for her memory alone; texts to the five John Hollander poems took up a good two pages in the printed program.

David Starobin’s Three Places in New Rochelle was one of the evening’s unexpected delights, with the composer on amplified guitar, and his daughter Allegra on percussion. The first section incorporates siren and wooden blocks; the second uses eggbeaters and the sound of running water; and the last, The Top of Mount Joy, is filled with gongs. (As an aside, the program listed "Choking Victim" as one of Allegra’s favorite bands, and if I were programming this festival, I might have invited them to perform some Emerson-related works. No, I’m not kidding.)

The soprano Haleh Abghari, a magnetic presence on New York’s new music scene, was given the lion’s share of the new works, several of which made a strong impression. William Anderson’s gentle Bacchus, just a few minutes’ long, had strong overtones of Barber, and seemed perfectly cast for the evening’s metaphysical focus. In his introduction to Merlin 1, composer Frank Brickle confessed, "I don’t really understand this poem. Despite having lived with it for over a year I could not now provide you with a credible close reading or a coherent paraphrase of it." I quite admired this implicit confession that his setting of the text might have grown from a wellspring of feeling about the writing that is either unclassifiable or flat-out unidentifiable. Meanwhile, however, it didn’t hurt that his result was quite beautiful. And Robert Martin’s Emerson Songs – delicate, to my ears somewhat Asian-influenced – were the favorite of many in the audience. The common thread through all of these was the glistening contribution of Ms. Abghari, radiating confidence all night and brimming with intelligent musical ideas.

Veteran new music interpreter Judith Bettina sounded wonderful in Babbitt’s Pantun, with text by Mr. Hollander, and even more glowing in Davidovsky’s Lost, in this case with a text by Carl Sandburg. The beautiful, lonely words could not have sounded better as intoned by Bettina, helped by James Goldsworthy on piano.

The program concluded with an attractive work by Matthew Greenbaum called Wild Rose, Lily, Dry Vanilla, set to an apparently incomplete and untitled Emerson fragment that as the composer himself notes may have "simply too much message for the amount of music." Thankfully, Mr. Greenbaum’s fears proved unfounded, with Ms. Abghari again making the most of his intriguing setting of an equally intriguing text.

Bruce Hodges


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