Saturday, July 20, 2013

New oratorio by SMK — Two and a half months later

It is time to begin to blog again. There is too much I need to say and too many things I need to write about.

One of these is Letter From Italy, 1944, an oratorio by Sarah Meneely Kyder. LFI received its premiere on April 28, 2013 in the fine auditorium of Middletown High School. The Greater Middletown Chorale, with assisting soloists and a crackerjack freelance orchestra, under the direction of Joseph D’Eugenio, demonstrated a remarkable level of commitment to this new work.

They also were very savvy about marketing. The oratorio relates the true story of Sarah’s father in World War Two (in the Pacific theatre as well as Italy) and after he returns home. Chorale officers and their supporters got vets (from all our wars) to buy tickets, got local people of Italian descent to buy tickets, promoted the oratorio as an alternate way to study history, had lots of pre-performance events in different venues. It worked.  The premiere was sold out two weeks in advance, all 700 seats, so the Chorale sold tickets to the dress rehearsal. Well over a thousand people heard the piece, and they loved it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that Sarah Meneely Kyder and I have been friends for decades. With the American Music/Theatre Group I performed another (smaller) choral work of hers many times, back in the day. I have heard a good number of her pieces over the years. However, being friends doesn’t mean that I can’t be objective about her work. So let me say, unequivocally, right off the bat, that this is one of the most emotionally engaging, well-crafted works I have heard in the last decade. It is also a work of powerful intellectual honesty, which can move both the general public and the hardboiled professional.

Sarah’s style is a subtle blend of modal counterpoint and small, unexpected touches. It is a beautiful way of writing music, but because it is so lovely on the surface one can miss the details if one is not careful. One hears an unexpected bassoon lick; a sustained chord that is just dissonant enough to be ominous but not so dissonant that it is out of place with the prevailing tone of loveliness; temporary eruptions of virtuosity in the flute; a most peculiar use of the high register of the English horn. Such details — and there are many more of them — are crucial to the effect of LFI. Without them the piece might be cloying, or even sentimental.

Of particular effectiveness is her judicious use of two trumpets and some drums. Suggestions of military music are few and far between, and only a couple of times are we really aware of the war. Nothing like crude battle music ever happens, and this makes the one quasi-jingoistic moment electrifying. The first part (act) of LFI comes to a rousing conclusion with somewhat free quasi-variations on “When Johnny comes marching home.” All I could think of when I heard the premiere was a much more sinister version of the words — “Johnny I hardly knew ye.”

You see, this oratorio, and the poems by Sarah’s sister Nancy Fitz-Hugh Meneely, upon which it is based, is not really about World War Two. It is about their father John Meneely, and his return to civilian life. He is not physically maimed, like the grotesquely wounded veteran in “Johnny I hardly knew you.” Rather, he is psychologically scarred beyond repair. After a brilliant medical career, after fathering three daughters, after suffering ever-deepening bouts of depression, he takes his life.

This story might seem to invite sensationalistic treatment, but all temptation to overstate is scrupulously avoided. So is all temptation to dramatize, to sentimentalize, in fact all temptation to do anything other than let the story speak for itself is avoided like the plague. What it was like for two sisters to tell this story at all is beyond my imagining. That they tell it with such honesty and discretion is almost miraculous.

Jack Pott, in the role of Dr. Meneely, was wonderful. The role is vocally strenuous and emotionally draining, and he rose to the occasion. The long-suffering women in his life, sung by Patricia Schuman, Patricia Barbana, Sheri Hammerstrom and Margaret Tyler, sang beautifully. The Middletown Chorale sang their hearts out. (It is so gratifying to see a chorus totally involved in a new work!) Joseph D’Eugenio was, as usual, a first-class conductor who lead his forces to ever-greater heights.

Since it seems de rigueur these days for reviewers to snipe at performances, especially new works, and especially in The New York Times, I guess I should say some negative things. (Not that I’m writing for the NYT, but hey, that’s the standard.) A little negativity might even get me some extra cred from folks who think what I’ve written above is nothing but hyperbole. So here goes.

The orchestra from time to time had a few intonation problems, and the trumpets didn’t always play their unexpected virtuoso moments with the required panache. The poetry can be quite dense, and sometimes the singers’ diction wasn’t up to delivering it. Fine conductor that he is, Joe didn’t always control the applause and the audience erupted after some breathtaking moments that should have lead into the next number without clapping. Sheila Garvey’s semi-staging was sometimes clunky, or even distracting — but the projections that she and Jijoun Chang produced were always effective and even provided necessary clarification of the action.

This is a bit long for a blog — it’s more of a combination review and remembrance. Whatever you want to call what I have written, I hope you enjoyed reading it. Even more, I hope that in some small way I can call attention to this excellent composition. Who knows, some conductor out there might read this and might decide that LFI should be done again. And he/she should conduct it! That would be great.

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