New vocal CDs address big social issues: Attention, stocking stuffers!

In the wake of George Floyd, and still amidst the climate crisis, Covid, the lingering sulfurous odor of Trumpism, and so much more, musical artists are stepping up with new releases reflecting deep concerns about the fate of the Earth. We’ll take a quick look at a few recent releases.

A gathering of Americana

Baritone Lucas Meachem, appearing in leading roles on operatic stages worldwide, has released his first-ever solo album, Shall We Gather, a collection of 15 American art songs celebrating resilience and togetherness. His wife, pianist Irina Meachem, accompanies on this new Rubicon Classics issue (RCD1071). “With these songs,” he says, “I hope to offer a bit of hope for what truly makes us come together: our belief in the good of humanity and love for our neighbor.” The trailer for Shall We Gather, where you can see the artist explaining his objectives with this CD, can be viewed here. Further biographical information on Lucas Meachem is available on his website.

The baritone surveyed the extensive literature of American song in some depth to come up with his repertoire. Some items come from the folk tradition, such as “Oh, Shenandoah,” and others from popular music of its day, such as “The Boatmen’s Dance” and “At the River” (both in arrangements by Aaron Copland). Notable in his choices are songs by Black and Jewish composers, women, at least one LGBTQ person, one text celebrating an Indigenous warrior, a somber reflection on 9/11, and one of the four Walt Whitman Songs about the Civil War by immigrant Kurt Weill. Most appropriate for the moment we are traversing is the Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More” (oh, how badly we need Build Back Better!).

The overall spirit of the CD is inclusiveness, with a Popular Front-style patriotism. The religiosity of the American people is represented in a couple of numbers (out of all Charles Ives’s catalogue I’m not convinced that “In the Mornin’”—“Give me Jesus!”—was the best choice), but this is balanced by a subtle nod to the nonbelievers as well, John Musto’s setting of “Litany” to a Langston Hughes text that sounds like a modern Emma Lazarus and which recapitulates the “gathering” idea: “Gather up/ In the arms of your pity/ The sick, the depraved,/ The desperate, the tired,/ All the scum/ Of our weary city./ Gather up/ In the arms of your pity./ Gather up/ In the arms of your love—/ Those who expect/ No love from above.”

Meaningfully, this song of the underdog is immediately followed by Richard Hageman’s setting of Franklin P. Adams’s poem “The Rich Man,” which points to the ever-growing abyss between the one-tenth of the 1% and the rest of us who “must slave for livelihood” in today’s America.

Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), one of that generation of composers who first attempted to make a truly American music, appears with one of his Three Indian Songs: “Hi-dho ho!/ Behold, here a warrior fighting fell,/ A warrior’s death died./ Hear, O hear,/ There was joy in his voice,/ Joy in his voice as he fell,/ Ha-he dho-ee dha hey ee dho-ee./ Ah he dho he dho.” I’m not sure of the source of this text (possibly Farwell’s own), but the nostalgic song belongs to that era of honoring the American Indian just as they were perceived as passing from the American scene (for example, the Indian head-buffalo nickel that was coined from 1913 to 1938). While it’s noble to have Farwell’s music recalled, perhaps for this CD Meachem might have found a Native composer for a different, less defeatist, take on Indigenous representation. In this respect, it’s unnerving that the same CD contains “Oh, Shenandoah,” a “pioneer’s” wistful glance back at the eastern states while he who will plunder the West for land and precious minerals is “bound away, across the wide Missouri.”

The opening song, “American Anthem,” with a text by Gene Scheer, sets the tone, addressing that sense of helplessness in the face of disaster and confusion that so many have felt in recent years: “For those who think they have nothing to share,/ Who fear in their hearts there is no hero there./ Know that quiet acts of dignity are that which fortifies/ The soul of a nation that never dies.”

All of the proceeds from Shall We Gather will go to the Meachems’ Perfect Day Music Foundation, which promotes diversity in classical music, funding projects such as a competition that encourages young musicians to share through social media works by composers and poets who have been historically excluded.

At a total time of just under 53 minutes, there would have been room for a few more songs and more opportunity to luxuriate in one of the great expressive baritone voices of our age. The program booklet helpfully provides all the lyrics to each song (though with several textual errors). The editor made a choice on four songs to identify the lyricist most importantly instead of the composer, notably on numbers by Charles Ives and Aaron Copland (whose song, as in shall we gather “At the River” provides the CD title), as well as the “American Anthem” text by Scheer and a confusing notation that it had been “arranged” by Lee Musiker. Of the composers represented, five by my count are living.

Voice of Nature?

Another world-renowned American singer is Renée Fleming, who is now in the twilight years of a stunning career. At her prime she owned a number of roles: I remember her stunningly affecting Countess Madeleine in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, for example. Winding down her stage presence, she recently took on the touching role of the mother, Margaret Johnson, in the Broadway opera Light in the Piazza, which she took to London, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And to her great credit, unlike many singers, she has championed contemporary music as well: I recall a concert in Los Angeles a few years back populated by modern Spanish composers.

In Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene, she pays homage to her beloved natural settings and acknowledges that we are in a new era now, when the fate of the Earth has been inalterably transformed by the hand of humans. “Nature has been so good to us: we have not been so good to nature,” she says.

Of her 16 songs, she specially commissioned two composers for new pieces, Kevin Puts and Nico Muhly, and chooses a third composer, Caroline Shaw, for a song Fleming premiered in concert in 2017. All three of these are receiving their first recordings here. The remaining repertoire comprises items by Gabriel Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn in French, and Edvard Grieg in German; Franz Liszt has one song in each. “These works are about connecting the human condition to the natural world, as experienced by the great Romantic poets and composers,” says Fleming.

Almost as if attending a funeral for the Earth, the overarching mood of this CD is gloomy and elegiac. “Evening,” the opening number by Puts, set to words by Dorianne Loux ends, “We know we are doomed,/ done for, damned, and still/ the light reaches us, falls/ on our shoulders even now,/ even here where the moon is/ hidden from us, even though/ the stars are so far away.”

In the singer’s concluding number, Shaw’s “Aurora Borealis,” the poet Mary Jo Salter asks, “how/ long would it take/ before you’d make/ the leap?—Would you look/ at those freak/ streaks in the sky/ forever before saying, ‘I see the light: this is what I sought tonight?’”

If the listener (and reader) finds these texts obscure and recherché, at least they share fine company with the third modern song, Muhly’s “Endless Space,” which imaginatively mashes a recent text by Robinson Meyer (with Charlie Lord) from The Atlantic Monthly together with a passage from 17th-century English poet-theologian Thomas Traherne, who wrote, “Prompted to seek my Bliss above the Skies,/ How often did I lift mine Eyes/ Beyond the Spheres!/ Dame Nature told me there was endless Space/ Within my soul; I spy’d its very face:/ Sure it not for nought appears./ What is there which a Man may see/ Beyond the spheres?/ Felicity.”

It likely did not take a great deal of trouble to find Romantic Era songs that mention such nouns as sky, heavens, stars, waves, moon; wind, breeze, peak and bird; tree, branches, woods, pines, oaks, bushes, lawns, forest and pond. But this does not make these songs essentially about nature. Rather they serve primarily as backdrop before which the poets revel in ecstatic love or wallow in equally ecstatic sorrow, or meditate on vast subjects such as infinity and death. “We know the land/ is disappearing beneath/ the sea, islands swallowed/ like a prehistoric fish,” writes Loux in the Puts song, but almost nowhere in this set of songs do we encounter the regenerative qualities that make nature so wondrous, nor any call to action in this sorry Anthropocene Era to repair and restore what has been lost. In this lachrymose world, all is ending: there’s no rebirth and new life.

In the CD program note, Fleming is quoted, “Climate change is especially disturbing to me: the extinction of animals that we took for granted when we were children, and now the increasing heat, fires, and flooding. The crisis is here.” But where is the urgency?

So what we have is a 57-minute-long album of art songs that will be precious (in either sense) to many listeners. Some will find them a masterful delivery by a great diva and her sensitive partner at the keyboard, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Others will find them self-absorbed, pretentious, and depressing. A few will find both descriptions to be true at once. The recording is on Decca B0034565-02.

The Crossing live

The Crossing is a contemporary professional chamber choir conducted by Donald Nally. Each of its new CDs is an event. We have reviewed them twice before—Anonymous Man and Fire in My Mouth. Lovers of choral singing, especially of new works, will delight in their latest endeavor, Rising w/ The Crossing. In the absence of live performances, and with the impossibility of even singing together to record in a soundproof room, The Crossing has delved into its archive of live recordings to select 12 tracks, almost 71 minutes’ worth of material highly relevant to our time.

The opening number is David Lang’s protect yourself from infection, his setting of a 1918 U.S. government document during the global influenza epidemic. Philadelphia had done pretty well with the flu up until then, but in 1918, toward the end of  World War I, it made the unwise decision to hold a Liberty Loan Parade. That unleashed a new wave of sickness that killed thousands. The names of a few of those unfortunate souls are scattered throughout Lang’s piece, which is otherwise the progressive harmonic announcement, almost chants, of directives as if heard on public address speakers mounted on telephone poles. Among the 20 advisements, only the last two are repeated by the chorus: “If you become ill don’t try to keep on with your work” and “Fight the disease rationally and do not become unduly alarmed”—compare and contrast with our government in the COVID-19 pandemic!

The theme of loss is carried over into the second cut, Lost Forever, by Joby Talbot to a text by Roddy Lumsden, which concludes, “You’re lost forever and the actors who will play us are not yet born,” a sweet if perhaps only aspirational sentiment that somehow, someday, any of our lives will go on to mean something, somewhere, to somebody.

In Translation, composer Ēriks Ešenvalds and poet Paula Petersen attempt to depict in music and verse what it means to render an idea from one medium, or one language, into another, capturing its essence in a different vocabulary: “Emptied of nothing,/ filled with story, the moon becomes/ a thin wafer melting/ in the mouth, words/ having found their tongue.”

Interspersed among the modern works are two settings from the work of Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707), a forerunner of J.S. Bach. One is a mashup of a passage from the Biblical Song of Songs 2:13-14, ancient erotically charged poetry, linked to an invocation of the mingling of souls (the sinner’s into Jesus’s wounds) that is also sexually suggestive. It is not surprising that choruses, as well as individual soloists, often find deep resonance between early Western music and modern music, both absent the Classical formalism and then the Romantic influences of the centuries in between.

Continuing the theme of loss and rebirth, in First Pink, composer Paul Fowler and poet Rosemary Wahtola Trimmer sing a piece of humanist wisdom about the unstoppable continuum of life: “In the loss/ is a branch/ with a brittle/ stem/ where an old/ fruit hangs/ rust-colored/ and dried/ beside/ a tight cluster/ of rose-tipped buds/ where something/ fragile/ and persistent/ is just/ beginning/ to open.”

David Lang returns with two segments from his the national anthems, Part I: “our land with peace” and Part IV: “keep us free.” Lang surveyed the anthems of countries around the world and found remarkable similarities, including much hackneyed language and kitschy, standard-issue rhetoric. Surely this should surprise no one.

“The text for Alex Berko’s Lincoln appears on the dedicatory inscription in the Lincoln Bay at the Washington National Cathedral,” reads the program note. The words are “ABRAHAM Lincoln/ whosE lonely soul/ God kindled/ is here remembered/ by a people/ theIR conflict healed/ by the truth/ that marches on.” Berko starts from the end, and the word “marches” becomes a threnody telling us that conflict is continuous and never completely “healed.” In repeated snippets of the inscription he proceeds backwards—and unless I’m mistaken, the name Abraham Lincoln is never even sung. It’s not about a single person or hero but all of us and our truth that we remember at each step of the way.

The last two items on the CD reflect Indigenous spirituality—the final number by Santa Ratniece, the longest on the album at 10 minutes, an evocation of Ainu prayer (the Ainu people live in the area surrounding the Sea of Okhotsk, including what are today northern Japan and parts of Russia). The penultimate chorus is another piece by Ēriks Ešenvalds, based on a North American Ute prayer. The arrangement includes the unearthly vibrations of a marimba. The shifting harmonies are heavily grounded by the bass voices, and frankly, the words are barely intelligible. But luckily the excellently produced program booklet contains all the lyrics for the benefit of listeners, and I think our readers will appreciate them:

Earth teach me quiet—as the grasses are still with light.
Earth teach me suffering—as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility—as blossoms are humble with the beginning.
Earth teach me caring—as mothers nurture their young.
Earth teach me courage—as the tree that stands alone.
Earth teach me limitation—as the ant that crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom—as the eagle that soars in the sky.
Earth teach me acceptance—as the leaves that die each fall.
Earth teach me renewal—as the seed that rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself—as the melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness—as dry fields weep with rain.

Rising w/ The Crossing is available on New Focus Recordings FCR281.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. Aside from numerous awards for his writing from the International Labor Communications Association, he received the Better Lemons “Up Late” Critic Award for 2019. His latest project is translating the nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, the first volumes available from International Publishers NY.

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