A tremendous turnout on Saturday night welcomed composer Joseph Summer back to the island he has sometimes called home. The “Shakespeare in Song” program was presented in an awkward but gracious room at the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas Resort, a long and narrow space which was filled to capacity.
Composers, as in the case of other artists, have not had an easy time of it in the last hundred years or so. Some say the turning point in music was the destruction of tonality on the part of Wagner. Others point to the two attempts on the part of civilization to commit suicide, generally known as the two World Wars, which filled the first half of the 20th century.
Whatever the cause, there has been an aesthetic upheaval and a revolt on the part of the artist. Many serious artists of the last hundred years refused to be the “poodles” of society. Finding it more important to help society dream its dreams, articulate its myths, and hold the mirror before the human condition in such a way as to cause a moment of introspection, they have looked upon themselves as specialized cells in the organism of humanity.
Contemporary composers have not found it easy to get their works performed. Often performances are given a patronizing place on concert programs, sandwiched between well-tried war horses of the repertoire in the hope that the audience will not leave. Too often, performances of new works are ill prepared by performing artists who may feel a sense of duty to the composer, but not a sense of ascent to the work at hand.
Joseph Summer is a composer who knows what he wants to say and has the vocabulary to do so. The audience gathered Saturday was attentive, respectful and open. St. Thomas audiences are like that. We may not know when to clap, but we sure do know how. The program presented at the Ritz-Carlton was only enough to catch our interest in his work.
According to the program notes, Summer has relied quite heavily for inspiration on classical texts. He has set a great many Shakespeare scenes and sonnets. What the audience heard on this program were three scenes from “Hamlet.” It would be unfair to make a judgment on these works after only one hearing, but it is possible to make some observations.
By their very nature, these “scenes” (two soliloquies by Hamlet, the other Ophelia’s mad scene with her brother in observance) challenge both the performer and listener to jump into an action out of context. The texts are longer than sonnets, but still so brief that by the time the listener has gotten in the proper frame of mind, the work is over. It might have been a better introduction to his music had Summer either prepared the audience a bit more with a few sonnets, which are by nature more self contained, or verbally introduced these scenes either in program notes or through brief remarks.
Stylistically, Summer is a kindred spirit to the late Benjamin Britten, especially the operatic Britten. His works have a tonal focus and his accompaniments are highly atmospheric, borrowing technique from much more Romantic and common practice music. In this way, Summer is in the mainstream of serious composition as not only an aesthetic rebel but also an heir. His voice parts are completely at the liberty of his interpretation of the declamation of the text. He employs “text painting” as a means of expression in a manner that goes out of the way to avoid melodic formulae.
The texts he chose were probably among the more challenging. The “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy is one of the most profound and challenging spoken scenes in dramatic literature, and the translation of it into music is a daunting task. It is unfortunate that this work was not repeated as an encore. It deserves more than one listening. Summer’s interpretation of the Ophelia scene, “They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier,” was haunting and disturbing, which is to say quite successful.
Artists of exceptional caliber
The performers gathered for the evening by the composer are all superb musicians. They approached his works with seriousness and conviction. Throughout the rest of the program, they would make it clear just how fortunate he is to have artists of their caliber as vehicles for his work.
Miroslav Sekera is an awesome talent. As both a solo performer and accompanist, he is absolutely amazing. The rather abused and beaten Weber baby grand at the Ritz was never treated so well and produced sounds of such beauty that it must have surprised itself. Sekera has a soaring international career and is someone to watch. We got to hear him “when.”
He opened the evening with the ever popular Chopin “Polonaise in A flat, Opus 53.” His playing went ‘way beyond panache. He captured the “dance” nature of the form and established tempo relationships between the rather episodic sections of the work, giving the piece a cohesion and freshness which is rare. It was just the first of many epiphanies he would provide. His rendering of Franz Liszt’s “Rigoletto Paraphrase” was an astounding display of sensitive use of touch to bring out different textures and colors on the instrument. His “singing” lines just seemed to rise from a web of ethereal sound.
This young performer has so much going on that is far surpassing technical brilliance. His performance of the “Tempest Sonata, Opus 31 #2” of Beethoven was a mystical experience. This listener heard new things in a work that has been a favorite most of his life. In Sekera’s hands, the second movement is other-worldly. Form, line, harmony—they all disappeared. Just sheer beauty, beauty unfolding in all those ways and many more.
Tenor Alan Schneider is a very serious young musician with a wonderful, versatile voice. In the Summer songs, he produced a characteristically English tenor kind of sound, reminiscent of Ian Partridge or Peter Pears in his prime, — clear, bright, with impeccable diction used as an expressive device. The full richness and body of his voice was exhibited later in Italian opera arias.
Maria Ferrente is a soprano whose love for singing is surpassed only by her love of communicating. She managed to bring the audience into her mood as Ophelia in just a few notes. From then on, they were her fans. A young woman sitting with me confided that she found the Ophelia work haunting, but had to work hard to believe that someone capable of making such beautiful sounds would drown herself. Had the need arisen, there were a few hundred people present who would have rescued her in a heartbeat.
Her wide vocal range is matched by the spectrum of color she is able to explore: from a floating upper register to a deep, growling chest voice. She rewarded the audience with a performance of “Summertime” as an encore that sure seemed like dessert.
This evening was made possible by The Forum. This committee of dedicated members of our community has been bringing outstanding speakers and performers to the island since 1996. They are truly movers and shakers. They have risen above obstacles and stayed clear of politics. They have shown a unity of purpose from the start: to bring the experience of the excellent to St. Thomas and make it available at reasonable cost to as wide a section of our population as possible.
For many occasions The Forum has gone so far as to make student tickets available gratis or at drastically reduced prices. It took a certain amount of daring to fund a showcase of a living composer. We should be proud of them and deeply grateful.