The past is prologue in John Eaton’s ritualized music

Sat Oct 24, 2015 at 1:53 pm
A program of John Eaton's music was performed Friday night at Symphony Space.

A program of John Eaton’s music was performed Friday night at Symphony Space.

Composer John Eaton has had an admirable career. And from the experience of Friday night’s concert at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space, he has more music in him still.

Eaton has been a MacArthur Fellow, a prominent composer of what he termed “pocket” operas, and a teacher at the Universities of Chicago and Indiana. His most well-know composition is his opera The Cry of Clytaemnestra. Friday’s concert was presented by the New York Composers Circle, and was a celebration of Eaton’s 80th birthday earlier this year. This was a concert of all vocal music; a piece of formless juvenilia and a song from last year that each examined thoughts about death through poetry; and two quasi-liturgical ensemble pieces, Mass II and El divino Narciso.

Eaton’s style is refreshingly intuitive. No matter how much time and energy he spent in writing the pieces, they sound in the moment, almost improvised. His vocal writing tends to keep singers in the upper portion of their registers, and makes expressive use of dynamics and wordless vocal sounds and effects. Instrumental accompaniment is highly vocalized too, almost conversational, with quick phrases and little riffs filling in the spaces between.

Along with his extensive opera compositions, Eaton has also worked with electronic music and has been a prominent microtonal composer. The ideas and techniques he learned from each field are incorporated into his pieces, where they add a substantial amount of color and expression without ever sounding like mere effects. For Eaton, an intriguing, malleable sound that can be made with the human voice is a tool for music, and microtonal intervals and complex overtones—from bowing the piano strings, for example—create chords that are simultaneously tonal while free from the determinations of functional harmony.

Soprano Sharon Harms sang the first two songs, with Christopher Oldfather at the piano. She brought more style to Death, from 1946 and using William Carlos Williams’ poem of the same name, than the music could bear—but this was mainly an example of Eaton’s beginnings.

Following this, she and Oldfather performed excerpts from Lycidas, composed last year. This is a substantial setting of Milton. The music uses modern techniques, like microtonal singing set against the resonate overtones of the piano, to create a delicate and beguiling sound. It had something clear to say about the words that were its foundation.

Mass II (1997) offered a fascinating performance of an excellent piece. The work is surprising in every moment and builds its own consistent logic. It has roots in Renaissance polyphony and ideally should be heard in the resonant space of a church, but the quality of the music came through in the dry acoustic of the theater.

This is a mass that explores the spiritual significance of ritual, a sort of non-denominational liturgy. The score is centered around a coloratura soprano—the fine Bridget Parker—accompanied by a quintet of singers, clarinet, percussion, piano, and some electronic processing. Eaton’s writing sets the Latin text into gorgeous colors and evocative intervals, and he uses chattering and whispering sounds from the singers and the other instruments in a way that sounds avant-garde but also confirms the social ritual of the mass.

Mass II unsettles expectations while expressing a deep interest in the mystery of faith—the music outlines something that might be experienced but never understood. The musicians, led by conductor Carmen-Hellena Téllez, gave an involved performance, listening carefully to each other and bringing out a great deal of expression from the music.

After a break, the concert finished with a substantial work, albeit for pocket-sized forces: El divine Narcisco, from 1998. This is a dramatic cantata, based on an allegorical play by 17th century Mexican poet Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. The drama features Human Nature (mezzo soprano Phoebe Haines), Echo (Parker), and Narcissus (tenor Stephen Ng). Eaton described his view of the story as being about the allure of both the Divine (Narcissus) and the Satanic (Echo) on Human Nature.

The style is similar to Mass II but the scoring is slightly different; piano and clarinet are replaced by cello and a flutist playing a gamut of flutes. As with Mass, the piece put Eaton’s virtues on display—intelligence, curiosity, wit, and a sense of communication that is sociable and eye-to-eye. That social feel, and the ritual setting of the text—with declarations supported by creatively antiphonal colors from the instruments—make it feel even more strongly like an exploration of paganism and Christianity. The fine way Eaton creates characters and their morals through music, and the performances of all the singers, shows roots in Bach. But Eaton’s voice is his own, an embodiment of the vast and rich classical tradition, in an attractive contemporary sound.


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