A Feast of Words, in Song (part 1)
Volti inaugurated their twenty-seventh season with a Thanksgiving feast of words in song, with five contemporary choral works that drew from a pantheon of American poets, including Rita Dove, e e cummings, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Alvin Singleton's "Gospel" was a perfect introit. The singers worked its madrigal style to full advantage, soaring through the phrases with an exhuberance that completely captured the tone of Dove's poem: "ride joy until / it cracks like an egg." When the brief work came to an end, I couldn't imagine needing anything more. I wanted to stand, applaud, and go out into the world--just so sated.
Wayne Peterson's An e e cummings Triptych was the only piece on the program more than ten years old, and its happy-go-lucky "60s harmonies" mirror the lighthearted joy that characterizes much of e e cummings' poetry. Setting e e, however, is such a huge risk. There is depth and richness even in lines that leap popularly off the page, and a reader savors such lines again and again: "as red as terror and as green as fate, / greyly shall fail and dully disappear--" A reader cannot help but make their own music for these words, and that very personal and intimate activity is what turns cummings' playful arrangements of words into something a little more sophisticated. Musical settings, whether solo or choral, tend to infringe on one's imagined poetic music: even if I get beyond the momentary distractions of an interesting harmony or pretty melody, the sung words--the ones I want to savor in my own way--tend to race by or, worse, end up a mushily enunciated. My criticisms are not aimed at Volti's performance at all; rather, their excellent qualities of ensemble and blend, tuning and musicality, allowed my mind to focus straight away on these more compositional issues.