Spiritual journeys and operatic thrills mark Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday

Mon May 28, 2018 at 1:58 pm
Composer Thea Musgrave was celebrated at a 90th birthday concert by the New York Virtuoso SIngers on Sunday.

Composer Thea Musgrave was celebrated at a 90th birthday concert by the New York Virtuoso Singers on Sunday.

The shortest piece on Sunday’s program by the New York Virtuoso Singers and other artists in honor of composer Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday was a volatile, two-minute item for unaccompanied oboe titled Whirlwind.

On the other hand, that title might have served for the entire evening of choral works and opera scenes by the Scottish composer, during which an unrelenting storm of imagination and passion seemed to whirl through the resonant nave of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

Whirlwind was having its world premiere, as was La Vida es Sueño, a dramatic monologue for baritone and piano. Two other works composed during the present decade–the brief oboe piece Dawn and the substantial choral work The Voices of Our Ancestors–received their first U.S. performances.

All this evidence of Musgrave’s continuing vigor and inspiration was confirmed by the tall, smiling presence of the composer herself on Sunday, the actual day of her landmark birthday.

In a quotation featured prominently in the printed program, Musgrave described herself as a woman and a composer, “but rarely at the same time.”

One doesn’t like to contradict a master artist talking about herself, but to this listener the whole evening was a celebration of at-the-same-timeness—a mode of expression combining exquisite detail with volcanic emotional force in a way that was inescapably, irresistibly feminine.

One felt it most, of course, in the strong female protagonists—“Three Heroines from Three Continents,” as the program had it—in the excerpted scenes from Musgrave’s operas Simón Bolívar; Harriet, the Woman Called Moses; and Mary Queen of Scots. (Scots might dispute whether they are on a continent, but the title will serve.)

But one also sensed a woman’s hand in the selection of twelve texts from all over the ancient world for The Voices of Our Ancestors, addressing “the question of our existence,” as the composer put it, with “not only poems about the eternal existential questions, but also poems addressing intimate human feelings of love, despair, loss, and enjoyment.” 

In Musgrave’s 2014 choral setting with organ, brass quintet and vocal soloists, these macro- and micro-views of life, death, and the universe came together seamlessly in a kind of long zoom shot, beginning with a dark, seething vision of creation and narrowing down to a totally human drinking song in the penultimate movement.

As the piece began, sustained deep bass and flickering high phrases from organist James Adams and the American Brass Quintet wove a primeval atmosphere around narrator Tadeusz von Moltke’s cool recitation of the Vedic creation hymn. To this was added the disembodied sound of singers in the choir loft intoning a poem about Time of Sanskrit origin.

Vocal solos marked turning points in the work, beginning with bass Elijah Blaisdell’s impressive address to the invisible, unknowable God. Sarah Griffiths’ bell-like soprano harmonized with itself in the resonant space, adding a note of sensuality to a Persian hymn to creation. By the eighth movement, the performance had warmed to match Sishel Claverie’s dark alto and trumpet-like top tones in Dido’s Lament from Vergil’s Aeneid.In an easy, full-throated tenor, Chad Kranak mingled remembered ecstasy and present desolation in an Arabic poem comparing lost love to a devastated city.

Closing the work on an Egyptian poem beginning “Enjoy thyself more than thou hast ever done before,” seemed to invite a merry, hedonistic finale, but the drooping phrases of Musgrave’s setting sent a memento mori instead: Enjoy it now, because the grave awaits.

Conductor Harold Rosenbaum led this cosmic journey with an assurance and care for detail that was reflected in the chorus’s ripe phrasing and the subtle colorations of the American Brass Quintet.

In the two contrasting oboe pieces, the meditative Dawn and the jumpy Whirlwind, Nicholas Daniel’s fine dynamic control and fleet technique provided the palate-cleansing sorbet between two rich choral courses.

From the dazzling forte blast of its opening to the yelps, yips, mutters and shouts in the middle to cantering rhythms near the end, Rorate Coeli, a setting of poems on Christ’s nativity and resurrection by the Renaissance-era Scottish poet William Dunbar, provided a virtual textbook of sonic effects for a capella chorus. The ensemble’s exuberant performance, however, was anything but academic.

Musgrave did not make an opera from Calderón’s classic 1635 play La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream), but in 2016 she did set its famous second-act soliloquy, from which the play’s title is taken, for baritone and piano. While the spiritual message was not unlike that of The Voices of our Ancestors, this monologue added operatic force and heft. The premiere performance by the powerful, oaken-voiced baritone José Adán Pérez lacked nothing in drama, while pianist Michael Fennelly contributed a dreamlike setting of swirling scales with hints of guitar embellishments and dance rhythms.

Fennelly’s Lisztian technique was put to a further test in the opera scenes, with Musgrave’s famously active, colorful, layered orchestrations reduced to a keyboard and ten fingers. If those orchestrations were the only Musgrave essential missing from this birthday party, Fennelly filled the gap admirably, his fleet fingers suggesting the orchestral riches of the opera house.

With Fennelly and Rosenbaum’s chorus in strong support, a cast of splendid soloists brought Musgrave’s powerful dramatic visions to life. Soprano Jenny Sandelin was all lyrical passion as Simón Bolívar’s mistress Manuela, vowing to sacrifice her reputation to join him at his deathbed, then revealed unsuspected dramatic resources as Mary Queen of Scots fiercely claiming royal power in the evening’s brilliant finale.

In between, soprano Christine Lyons and mezzo-soprano Karmesha Peake argued forcefully about justice as the young Harriet Tubman and her mother Rit; Peake then went on to lament, with rich mezzo tone and strong stage presence, the loss of her character’s husband, jailed for helping fellow slaves escape.

Baritone Pėrez returned in the Mary scene as a splendidly arrogant King James, with bass Steven Moore stepping out of the chorus to confront him as Mary’s supporter Lord Gordon before soprano Sandelin’s upstretched arms and high notes brought the opera’s Act II to a thrilling close.

To top off the concert, Rosenbaum led the chorus in his own amusingly contrapuntal arrangement of “Happy Birthday to You.”


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