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Music Review

A soaring tribute to a poet's vision of America

Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty was among the excellent soloists. Mezzo-soprano Janna Baty was among the excellent soloists.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / May 12, 2008

The Cantata Singers' valuable season-long exploration of the music of Kurt Weill came to an end on Friday night. Weill, however, was relegated to second billing; the major event was the local premiere of "High Bridge: A Choral Symphony after Poems of Hart Crane," by Charles Fussell, a composer with deep Boston roots.

Fussell's involvement with Crane's poetry goes back to the 1960s, and the depth of his understanding is evident throughout this sprawling and highly impressive work. "High Bridge" has the same muscular intensity and finely wrought imagery of Crane's verse, which it illuminates from often unexpected angles.

The piece is in six movements, five of which set excerpts from Crane's best known poem, "The Bridge." "The Harbor Dawn" paints a murky portrait of a New York dawn. Even as the music grows restless, with choral passages unfolding in large, complex paragraphs, it retains a veneer of unreality. The mood is upended by the bustling city sounds in "Cutty Sark," a humorous tale of a meeting with a drunken sailor that at times veers into an unexpectedly pensive mood.

A richly drawn portrait of Crane, for orchestra alone, follows, capturing the contradictions of a man who was both a subtle wordsmith and a raging alcoholic. Here especially, the orchestration is masterful, with deft and unexpected instrumental colors.

The symphonic structure of "High Bridge" is filled out by a wistful slow movement ("Indiana") and a propulsive scherzo ("Virginia"). The piece ended there at its premiere in 2003, but Fussell subsequently added a sixth movement, "Atlantis." It begins as a lightly scored tenor solo and blossoms into a blazing finale on the text "Whispers antiphonal in azure swing." Yet the music ends not in triumph but with ambiguous calm. Here, in its purest form, was the hard-won ecstasy and refusal of easy resolution that seems to inform Crane's entire poetic vision of America.

"High Bridge" is a marvelous and a major achievement. It ought to be heard again, and hopefully in a performance as expert as Friday's. Both chorus and orchestra gave a sense of total commitment in very demanding music. Soprano Karyl Ryczek, mezzo-soprano Janna Baty, tenor William Hite, and baritone David Kravitz were the excellent soloists. David Hoose led everyone magnificently.

The concert opened with Weill's Second Symphony. Written in 1933, it is a colorfully scored yet mostly unsurprising piece. Its musical logic is both unimpeachable and mechanical, and aside from some striking moments of anguish in the central slow movement, there is little emotional depth either. Somehow one ended up admiring the orchestra's vigorous performance far more than the music itself.

Cantata Singers

David Hoose, music director

At: Jordan Hall, Friday

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