Concerts like this are magical – something really worked for both settings of the enigmatic poem, Voyages, by Hart Crane.
At the pre-concert lecture, Robert Convery told us he set the entire poem in eight days. On the score, he had noted the date June 16, 1993, twenty-five years and one day prior to the concert. Benjamin C. S. Boyle’s world premiere took him nine months to complete, but he added a small orchestra and created his own text from the six-poem cycle. Both pieces were beautiful.
If you have not yet experienced the poem cycle Voyages by Hart Crane, beware the extravagant use of strange and obscure words and expressions. Crane was born in Ohio in 1899 and only lived 33 years, but somewhere along the line he must have wrestled with a dictionary and thesaurus and won. This poem uses words like cordage, undinal, spindrift, infrangible, samite, argosy, irrefragably, kelson, fervid – enough to make most setters of music shudder and abandon ship, but Convery and Boyle each had a success with The Crossing.
Convery must have been on fire during that week in 1994 when he set the poem. The music flows with captivating imagery in this lengthy a cappella piece. The Crossing singers have remarkably clear diction and by some magic they turn the pages of their scores noiselessly. The softly sung, beautifully pronounced and enigmatic words came through clearly if you had read the poem beforehand. If not, the words were unexpected and therefore hard to follow. The poem was projected on a beige wall behind the singers, but the strong sunlight made it difficult to read the words.
Convery had the singers sing intervals of seconds and minor thirds, often against repeated notes. He let his melodies follow the poem, using arcs of pitch for ‘waves fold thunder on the sand’. The second poem, an erotic, stormy tale of lovers, is full of long melismas on ‘ah’. The third poem starts as a medieval chant in minor thirds, a quiet “the sea lifts reliquary hands” and it picks up in speed as “light wrestling there incessantly with light/ star kissing star through wave on wave unto/your body rocking”. The fourth poem is a chorale, edging up in pitch to “levels of your eyes” and putting strange tonal accents on words like ‘foreknown’, making ‘fore’ a long note with a giant leap upward to ‘–known’. The fifth poem works the words ‘meticulous’ and ‘infrangible’ with contrasting discords moving to dotted rhythms and finally slowing for the ‘long way home’. The final poem colors the word ‘mon-O-tone’ by giving the choir a large upward interval going to the second syllable. The solemn ending of “it is the unbetrayable reply/whose accent no farewell can know” left a long moment of absolute silence in the church.
Benjamin C. S. Boyle carved out a libretto from the poem and orchestrated the sea sounds for a small chamber group of six violins, two violas, two cellos, and a double bass. Boyle had the cellos use a two-finger glissando, which sounded like seagulls squawking. It was startlingly effective.
Boyle’s cantata was in six parts. I: Avowal: bind us in time used half steps and was fairly strident and loud for the small church, but still beautiful. In II, the cellos became seagulls. The orchestra overshadowed alto Marin Montalbano’s solo “the bottom of the sea is cruel”. In III, Boyle made beautiful use of bowed stringed instruments against pizzicato. In IVa, the tenor and baritone solos were beautiful and the orchestration was much lighter as the tenor sang “Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,/and hasten while her penniless rich palms/Pass superscriptions of bent foam and wave,” to which the baritone responded, “…sleep, death desire/Close round one instant in one floating flower.” They continued in IVb with the tenor line ending on a slow cadence on “the sea lifts, also, reliquary hands”. The bassist (Tim Ressler) provided a ringing yet pianissimo support in these arias, for which Boyle had created a well-constructed and light score.
The highlight of the entire Boyle cantata is the last verse of the fifth poem, which, according to Conductor Donald Nally, is the conclusion, with VI being an epilogue. It is such a good demonstration of the power of The Crossing I urge you to listen to it on their Facebook page. Of course, hearing it live is always much more thrilling, but the recording does provide a hint of the beauty of this performance.
[MONTH OF MODERNS by The Crossing on June 9 at 8 p.m., 17 at 4 p.m., and June 30, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 8885 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. Tickets and information can be found on crossingchoir.org.]