Jonathan David: "Evening" from The Persistence of Song
Daniel Neer, baritone
Elizabeth Derhem, violin
Trudy Chan, piano
The Persistence of Song
Tribute to the Young Man Without His Umbrella
The cycle, The Persistence of Song, arose out of several collaborations between the Orfeo Duo (Vita Wallace, violin, and Ishmael Wallace, piano) and myself (as conductor of the chamber chorus, Howl!) in the adjacent neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Manhattanville, which includes much of lower West Harlem as well as Columbia University in NYC. The poets represented live(d) in or had a considerable association with these neighborhoods. Our baritone, Daniel Neer, premiered the work in 2006.
The work runs both cyclically and linearly. It travels from midnight around the clock to next day’s dusk. It also journeys from the deep shadows of utter loneliness all the way to the promise of a glorious sunset. Yet a third architecture is determined by the arch-shaped third movement, infused into the cycle as a whole. Movements 1 & 5, and 2 & 4, provide mirrors of each other not only in musical elements but also their poetic settings: 1 & 5 in the country, 2 & 4, in the city. The pivotal middle movement’s setting is, appropriately, place-neutral or, all-encompassing.
Muriel Rukeyser’s A Child in the Great Wood could hardly be any darker, suffused with existential gloom and loneliness. It’s a sketch tragedy, replete with multiple extended techniques on the violin, and an ironic falsetto.
The dawn of Thomas Merton’s Aubade—The City brings no relief, merely a more sun-seared misery, as we are thrust into unwanted human contact and the drudgery of the urban morning. The violin’s commentary features piercing glissandi and bristly strumming.
The titular The Persistence of Song is, naturally, the heart of the cycle. Howard Moss’s text shimmers joyfully, without commentary. It is also a palindrome, reading the same forwards as backwards. The accompaniment is in the form of a chaconne, a set of variations based on a repeated chord progression. (The bass line is pre-determined in the first movement intro.) Following a pivot the progression is reversed and the variations presented from last to first.
Bonnie Phelps’s “umbrella” gem is now worlds away from the anxiety of the forest and the stressed city morning. The gentleman is at peace within an otherwise uncomfortable situation. The violin presents some tone painting with its repeated pizzicato notes (see Chopin’s “raindrop” prelude) and doesn’t play with the bow until right before the final revealing line.
The last movement is the flipside of Merton’s blinding morning, a glorious slide into Evening. The promise of hope in this “darkness into light” cycle is thus sunset rather than the expected sunrise. The children’s visions are reflected in music of innocence and exuberance. After the darkness and nuances of the preceding movements, the voice and instruments here truly break free and the effect is of uninhibited joy.