By Ronald E. Grames | Fanfare Magazine
SUMMER Oxford Songs, Book 1: 8. Dance of the Mechanics;1 9. Sonnet 130.2 Oxford Songs, Book 2: 7. Sonnet 8;3 8. Sonnet 110;4 9. Sonnet 18;5 12. When That I Was and A Little Tiny Boy.6 Oxford Songs, Book 3: 1. If By Your Art;7 2. Sonnet 104;8 6a. Leda and the Swan;9 11. Sonnet 12810 • 1, 7, 8Eve Gigliotti (sop); 3, 9Heather Curley (sop); 3, 5Kellie Van Horn (mez); 2, 6, 10Alan Schneider (ten); 4Thomas O’Toole (bar); 2, 7, 8Anna Reinerman (hp); 5Sarah Brady (fl); 3John McGinn, (pn); 10Krista Buckland Reisner (vn); 1, 5, 6Max Zeugner (db);1, 4–6, 9QX String Quartet • ALBANY 881 (70:31)
SUMMER String Quartet: The Garden of Forking Paths • Kalmia String Quartet • ALBANY 1340 (56:29)
SUMMER Oxford Songs, Book 1: 7. Sonnet 135;1 10. On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough;2 12. He Shall with Speed to England.3 Oxford Songs, Book 3: 1. If By Your Art;4 6a. Leda and the Swan;5 12. Full Fathom Five.6 Oxford Songs, Book 4: 2. Sonnets 97 and 98;7 6. With Mirth in Funeral and with Dirge in Marriage;8 9. Sonnet 116;9 10. Sonnet 3;10 The Garden of Forking Paths: Shakespeare’s Memory.11 BYRD The Earl of Oxfords Marche12 • 1, 2, 7, 9Andrea Chenoweth (sop); 4Maria Ferrante (sop); 1, 5, 6, 9, 10Kellie Van Horn (mez); 6, 7Justin Vickers (ten); 3, 8Chad Sloan (bar); 4Lydie Hartelova (hp); 3, 8Miroslav Sekera (pn); Ian Watson (6pn,12hpd); 1, 2, 5, 7, 9–11Kalmia String Quartet • NAVONA 5899 (61:32)
These three CDs—out of five that Joseph Summer has released so far—give a fair representation of the Massachusetts-based composer’s inspirations and a reasonable sample of his shorter works. Sadly missing, I feel sure that he would add, are his operas, especially The Hebdomad, his as yet unperformed “musical pride and joy,” an ongoing series of operatic treatments of Boccaccio’s Decameron. In the releases under consideration, the focus is on vocal settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets and dramatic writing, and on a Bard-inspired chamber work. There is also a string quartet of grand proportions demonstrating Summer’s fascination with the writings of celebrated Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, as well as settings of verse by Milton and Yeats. The shorter works are grouped into collections; currently eight books—the last enigmatically numbered S1—named The Oxford Songs after Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Summer, a keen Oxfordian, argues that DeVere likely wrote the Shakespeare canon.
In fact, every Summer composition of which I know is inspired by a literary work. He is obviously taken with Shakespeare; in addition to the Oxford Song collections, he has written two operas, a Hamlet and a nearly complete The Tempest. All of the music offered here shares the characteristics of tonal accessibly, sophistication, and a depth of imagination and feeling that is immensely engaging. It is intellectual—and the composer occasionally explains in his notes the scholarly underpinning of the musical choices he has made—but the conceptualization never overshadows the deep emotional response to the text, and usually serves it brilliantly.
Indeed, much of Summer’s music has an intimate connection to his family, whatever the source or dexterity of the means the composer employs. The Albany release Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’sDaycontains, for instance, a setting of Miranda’s “If By Your Art,” in which she begs her father to quell the tempest in Shakespeare’s play of that name. It was inspired by an incident involving Summer’s own daughter. There are six of his deeply felt Shakespeare sonnet settings—three with particularly affecting harp accompaniment—with program notes to explain the very personal connections. There is, as well, a sensuous setting of Yeat’s Leda and the Swan—an arrangement of one of the earliest of his Oxford Songs, and one of several with a non-Shakespearian text—plus a finale drawn upon Feste’s parting speech in Twelfth Night. My favorite, however, is the Dance of the Mechanics, a suite for string quintet inspired by the characters of Love’s Labour’s Lost; an absolute delight and a technical tour de force.
In fact, while Summer is first and foremost a vocal composer, his writing for strings is equally impressive, both in this suite and in the amazing String Quartet in C Major, The Garden of Forking Paths. The title refers to Jorge Luis Borges’s eponymous short story, a dazzling exploration of time and causality cloaked in a gripping spy story. The piece can be thoroughly enjoyed as superbly crafted absolute music, but knowing the great Argentinian’s writings on timelines and on the labyrinthine temporal possibilities created by life’s choices adds depth to one’s appreciation of the musical manifestation. The nearly hour-long quartet, cast in five movements in three sets, takes its inspiration and movement names from five Borges stories: Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote; Shakespeare’s Memory; LaudatoresTemporisActi; An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain; and The Library of Babel. Summer describes in brief program notes how the music—intellectually riveting and often quite beautiful—represents each story’s central theme. He also includes a 50-page epistolary discourse on the works that more fully reflects on the fantasy of Borges’s writing and the great writer’s theories of time and causality. It is a remarkable, if occasionally bewildering, read. In this it is like his music, which is not likely to be fully assimilated upon first acquaintance, despite the accessibility of the language. Both music and commentary, however, richly reward greater familiarity.
Finally, there is the newest release, from Navona, the classical label of audio production house Parma Recordings. This is the premiere release in what is planned to be a series devoted to documenting The Shakespeare Concerts. With repertoire much like the Albany recital, this first CD showcases Summer’s works. Future releases will also draw upon Shakespeare-inspired compositions by other composers like Brahms, Schumann, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, and Strauss, which Summer has presented in his themed concerts. The second disc, already in preparation, is titled The Fair Ophelia. Named Shakespeare’s Memory, this premiere disc of the series offers scenes from Hamlet and The Tempest, including a particularly haunting performance of “If By Your Art” from 2002, and a setting of Ariel’s “Full Fathom Five” and preceding dialog, which most disquietingly conjures images of Alonso’s watery grave. There are four sonnet settings accompanied by string quartet, including a particularly personal response to sonnets 97 and 98 in combination. There is a riper-yet take on Yeats’s poem on godly seduction, and an alternative performance of the second movement from Summer’s string quartet, preceded by the William Byrd march that serves as one of its themes. In all, this disc is a most auspicious start to what promises to be a fascinating collection.
As for the performances themselves: The vocalists are generally fine; the young singers, all coached thoroughly by the composer, are intensely engaged with the technically challenging works. Generally the women are more pleasing vocally than the men, but all are capable. The two string quartets are impressive, as are all of the instrumental soloists. Engineering is well done on all three discs, though I prefer the slightly drier, more open acoustic of the Albany transfers. The Parma sound is closer and more reverberant, but not objectionably so. The Parma disc offers additional content when opened in a computer, including notes, scores for each work, photos, and even computer wallpaper and ringtones.
This just leaves the general assessment of Joseph Summer and his oeuvre for the end. Summer, who was born in 1956, has been writing since a child, but little of his music has been recorded until recently. Summer discusses the why of this a bit in the accompanying interview. It was clearly not for lack of artistic merit. Again in the interview, I comment—to the composer’s apparent delight—on his distinctive musical voice. The influences he acknowledges come from all periods and a variety of styles, and are thoughtfully used and thoroughly integrated into his own. This is music of maturity, intellectual brilliance, and imagination, well crafted and often spectacularly expressive. It was new to me five months ago when I began listening to it and perusing the scores that the composer sent me. I have found that I never tire of hearing it, and that it satisfies both heart and head in a way that only the finest music does. I’ll go so far as to say, mindful that one must never declare “genius” too easily, that the more I experience Joseph Summer’s art, the more I am inclined to apply the term. Highly recommended. Ronald E. Grames
This article originally appeared in Issue 36:4 (Mar/Apr 2013) of Fanfare Magazine.