Two stories were told in a recent concert series in Oregon. Both were tales of travail, perseverance, love and courage. One was a modern voicing of an epic poem of heroism in ancient days; the other, intimate reflections on a contemporary woman’s life. Both are composed for women’s chorus and string chamber orchestra, and were performed in this concert series by In Mulieribus and Portland Youth Philharmonic Camarata.
In 2017 the two groups (and Portland State University Choirs) collaborated in a performance of Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, which accompanied the film which inspired it, The Passion of Joan of Arc (read ArtsWatch’s story of that performance here). The success of that endeavor compelled Artistic Directors Anna Song (IM) and David Hattner (PYP) to collaborate for a second time, and planning began as soon as live performance became possible again. They selected a 2019 work for orchestra and women’s chorus by Emmy-nominated composer and Tufts University professor Kareem Roustom–Hurry To The Light–and co-commissioned a new work from New York composer, singer and violist Jessica Meyer. The Northwest premiere of Hurry To The Light and the world premiere of Meyer’s Because I will not despair took place on May 5 in Salem and May 12 and 13 in Portland.
Music, even choral music, doesn’t have to tell a story. And story set to music doesn’t have to be from written text at all. Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, recently enjoyed by Beaverton Symphony patrons, is a tone poem based on an end-of-life journey; the textless music is so poignant that Strauss’s friend Alexander Ritter wrote poetry based on the music after the premiere. But if a composition is based on an existing story, all of the elements of good storytelling must be present, in music and choice of text. In these two works you find it all: good arc, tension, emotion, character and beginning and ending. Storytelling magic.
Roustom’s Hurry To The Light capitalizes on the magic that already exists in The Odyssey. The poem, known to already exist in 700 BC, is still being studied, analyzed and read for pure enjoyment. There have been just over 60 English translations–so which did Roustom use? Lorelei Ensemble and A Far Cry chamber orchestra, co-commissioners of the work, helped make that decision. Roustom would use the first English translation by a woman, British classics scholar Emily Wilson. And out of the 140,000-ish words in Wilson’s 2017 publication, which text was chosen? Of course: Roustom uses the words of the female characters to tell the story.
Wilson’s The Odyssey has been called a “radical contemporary voice” (New York Times, Wyatt Mason, Nov. 2, 2017). Eyebrow raise? It’s okay, it’s Wilson not the Coen Brothers. The characters remain intact; it isn’t set in rural Baltimore, and they don’t fight with lightsabers. What Wilson does do is re-examine the original Greek and correct centuries of misogynistic translations. One small example: the “maidservants” of the palace who have submitted themselves to hoards of Penelope’s rejected suitors have been called “whores” and “creatures” in previous translations. Wilson returns to the original Greek meaning “female ones” and employs knowledge of societal norms to assert that they were probably slaves and young girls. Radical or just correct? You see the significance, yes? Listen to a lecture by Emily Wilson on “Translating the Odyssey Again” here.
And so Roustom follows suit. Upon the appearance of the sirens the music is strong and intelligent and earthy, not sexy or alluring, keeping with Wilson’s desire to portray their seductive qualities as “aural and cognitive” (Wilson Twitter, March 4, 2017). Listen to Movement IV: “The Sirens” here:
Although Roustom does not strictly adhere to the original story sequence, he does preserve the lovely story arc. He also did not attempt to follow Wilson’s iambic pentameter (the prize goes to composer Hugo Wolf’s lied “Morgentau” for setting that august poetic meter). At times, Roustom’s repetition of text fragments above the complex music seemed overextended–but repetition is a hallmark of The Odyssey. Perhaps there is an assumption that the audience knows The Odyssey so well they can be hypnotized into their own mental images of the characters and the drama. Those not familiar with such powerful images may have wanted to hurry things along.
But this is part of the building of tension and they are rewarded with a glorious release upon the reuniting of Odysseus and Penelope. It is a well-crafted and engaging 32-ish minutes of music illuminating the enlightened classic tale. Hear from Roustom about his creation process in a panel discussion with the conductors and Willamette University Professor of Classics Dr. Mary Bachvarova:
How Jessica Meyer chose her text after she received the commission from PYP and IM is also a bit magical. Well, perhaps more like fate. Meyer met Portland poet, singer and scholar Alicia Jo Rabins (ray-bins) in 2013. In subsequent years the two artists have collaborated on a few other projects. The choice of four of Rabins’ poems to create Because I will not despair came easily to Meyer. In a recent interview with Meyer on All Classical Portland’s “Thursdays @ Three” (May 11, 2023) she called Rabin’s poetry visceral and evocative. So is Meyer’s music.
There is direct representation. Rain is rain and fire is fire. Musical elements–texture, rhythm, dynamic range, dissonance and harmony–paint nature. And nurture. Even within the brief movements, Meyer creates a relationship between voices and strings that mirrors a real life communication. The expression of emotion is not formulaic. Anger sometimes simmers at a slow burn; love can be conveyed by a glance across the room. Sometimes emotions are held in silence to be released in solitude. Meyer acknowledges this.
In Movement III, “By The Flames,”–with poetry written in response to the burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral–the strings light the dramatic spark which builds as the woman watches until finally she is able to put words to her emotions in the form of a prayer. She prays that cruelty was not the cause of the carnage but acknowledges that cruelty exists always and then goes silent. Strings agonize over the torment of her realization until voices re-enter and combined forces try to steady themselves in forgiveness and hope. It is a remarkable dialog and leads into the beginning of the fifth and final movement with the woman uttering, struggling to find the words. When the words “because I will not despair…” do come, the strings gently coax them to become stronger and louder even though there is knowledge that healing and pain can coexist.
I did not want this piece to end. And yet it felt like it was just enough.
The ensemble performed this concert three times in three different acoustics. The first, a “soft launch” said Meyer in pre-concert phone conversation with OAW, was in Hudson Hall on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, a fine all purpose concert venue with moderate ring. St. Philip Neri, possibly Portland’s most resonant venue, was the site for the second performance and Lewis and Clark College’s Evans Auditorium the third. Not easy adjustments.
Hattner conducted in Evans Hall with razor sharp but subtle precision. Cues are not launched like projectiles at the artists, they are compactly delivered, even signaled in advance. Perhaps this is one of the reasons these young string players were never caught off guard. String solos were masterfully rendered. There were a few false entrances in voice and string in the Roustom, hardly noticeable considering the pace and complexity of the whole.
It was a brilliant stroke to place the women in front of the orchestra. The women’s choral/solo forces (for indeed there were vocal solos aplenty in both pieces) behind the strings would have muted the voices of the women. Talk about burying the lede! The women were split with low voices to the audience left and treble to the right turned slightly toward the midline. Any difficulties in the instruments hearing the voices, particularly in the Roustom where entrances and cutoffs whizzed by like footfalls in a tango, were well monitored by conductor Hattner.
These singers are exacting in pitch and rhythm. In Because I will not despair it seemed as though cutoffs were exaggerated, and not just the plosives. Perhaps the notice of it was due to the usual lack of same in other choirs. But it fit the “hear my every word” attitude of the composition and might well have been prescribed by Meyer, who was on location for the premiere weekend. Her written string instructions are similarly exacting.
Precision tuning is essential when singing so-called dissonant intervals and stacked chords containing intervals of seconds or ninths–musical dissonance is not a lack of harmony, unless it is mistreated. When used well it creates tension and must be nurtured. In Mulieribus did just that with a strength that the story demanded.
That the two works would program so well together in concert could be called brilliant. Or was that accidental? Did anybody plan for both texts to summon the strength of ancient female deities? Did they know that two main characters, strong women, would each question their own resolve, raise pleas for forgiveness and offer it freely?
It is also in the differences that the pairing worked so well. Hurry To The Light drives ever forward through external conflicts and torment with few moments for reflection and all ends well. Meyer’s work – Rabins’ poetry – is replete with reflection and conflict more internal, ending with exposed vulnerability yet hopeful. One story is complete, the other ongoing. A possible storyline for these two works is that they will meet again in many performances for years to come.
But for now, you can stream the May 5 performance right here: