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Notable Language: The VSO Takes On Verbal and Musical Masterworks 

State of the Arts

click to enlarge Sharon Robinson
  • Sharon Robinson

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra is launching its five-concert Masterworks series with an unusually literary program. Ostensibly, the program celebrates two sesquicentennials — of the Civil War and Richard Strauss’ birth — but an undercurrent seems to be the interplay of words and music. A Walt Whitman poem, Abraham Lincoln’s memorable words, Ecclesiastes and a German Romantic poem all find expression in the four works on Saturday night’s program.

Arguably the most beautiful marriage of language and music among these is the contemporary American composer Richard Danielpour’s setting in song of Whitman’s “Come Up From the Fields Father.” The poem is an unspeakably sad depiction of a Civil War-era family receiving news from the front of their mortally wounded son.

Danielpour’s work uses most of Whitman’s free-verse poem, excising passages spoken by an omniscient narrator. The result is a powerful portrayal in song that is even more emotionally direct than the poem itself. (The piece can be heard on Danielpour’s Curtis Institute of Music faculty webpage.)

Speaking by phone from his New York City home, Danielpour says he lives with poems a long time before setting them to music. “I’ve known all the Whitman war poems since the 1990s,” he says. “I need to let things gestate.”

Come Up From the Fields Father may be getting a lot of play as a result of the sesquicentennial, but Danielpour wrote it in 2008. “It came as a result of my opening the paper one day and seeing all these head shots of young men and women” who had died in the Iraq war, he recalls. “Whether it’s the Civil War or Iraq, when you’re talking about splitting up families, it’s all quite pertinent.”

The VSO and two other orchestras co-commissioned the original piece, written for baritone with viola and piano. On Saturday, baritone Randall Scarlata will sing, accompanied by Sharon Robinson on solo cello. Danielpour has known Robinson and her husband, VSO conductor Jaime Laredo (who will be on the podium), since the mid-1990s. He has written four pieces specifically for them, including Inventions on a Marriage for the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary.

Other pieces on the VSO program approach the literary realm in different ways. Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, with its tonal sweep from anthemic to wistful to patriotic, could have been placed wholesale into the score of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — except that a narrator speaks intermittent passages by, and about, the golden-tongued Civil War president. (Scarlata will speak the role.)

Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration tone poem began as a narrative the composer jotted down about the thoughts of a dying artist. After composing the piece, he had his friend, poet Alexander Ritter, write a poem based on his prose summary and appended it to the score — the opposite of most tone poems, which reference an existing work of literature or other nonmusical source.

Ernest Bloch wrote his “Hebraic Rhapsody” Schelomo — the Hebrew word for Solomon — in the midst of World War I, and while moving from his native Geneva to New York. In the upheaval he found comfort in the book of Ecclesiastes, which King Solomon purportedly wrote (though Solomon lived in the 10th century B.C.; Ecclesiastes dates from the third). Bloch orchestrated the 1916 piece for a very large orchestra — the VSO will have the opportunity to shine — and designated the cello as Solomon’s voice.

With Robinson in charge of that voice, the performance is sure to be compelling — and not just for the long-admired talent of this master cellist, whom a New York Times reviewer last year described as “eloquent” and “memorable.” Robinson plays an instrument whose existence seems impossible: a 1717 Stradivarius.

“I feel only that I’m a caretaker,” she says in a phone conversation from her Guilford home, noting that the instrument’s previous “caretaker” was Amaryllis Fleming, Britain’s best-known cellist before Jacqueline du Pré. Robinson acquired the Fleming Strad, as it’s called, two and a half years ago from Beare and Son Ltd., an antique-instrument dealer in London.

Robinson has made most of her recordings on a John Lott, and she has had two new cellos made for her in the last 30 years. These she deems “wonderful, modern, healthy cellos,” but they can’t compare. “The Strad has an incredible depth of sound on the lower bass and, at the top, it has a kind of Josephine Baker, husky voice. I’ve just never heard it in another cello.

“It has so many colors to be found in it,” she concludes, “and the two pieces [the Bloch and Danielpour] are wonderful pieces for color.”

Fittingly, her instrument also has its own literary association, however tangential: Amaryllis Fleming was author Ian Fleming’s half sister.

Vermont Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concert with Jaime Laredo, conductor; Sharon Robinson, cello; and Randall Scarlata, baritone, on Saturday, October 26, 8 p.m., at the Flynn Center in Burlington. $16-61. vso.org, flynntix.org

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Amy Lilly

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Amy Lilly has been a contributing arts writer for Seven Days since 2007.

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