John F. Kennedy

Review: Undelivered | Hall Ensemble | The Lilipad

Freedom Verse

The Hall Ensemble celebrates poetry, music and an undelivered JFK speech with an innovative concert, featuring a world premiere cantata.

published Thursday, May 15, 2014

Photo: Great Images in NASA, via WikiMedia Commons
President John F. Kennedy was a master at great speeches; Undelivered focuses on one he never gave

Fort Worth — On Tuesday evening, the Hall Ensemble presented the second of three iterations of their final concert of the season at the Lilipad on Magnolia, featuring a premiere of a dramatic cantata for three voices and chamber ensemble, Undelivered, with music by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, TheaterJones’ chief classical music and opera critic. The work, with libretto by Suzanne Calvin, is based on the speech JFK did not live to deliver on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.

Like all of the Hall Ensemble house party concerts, this one featured fabulous food. This time, Chef Vance Martin of Lili’s Bistro catered the concert. There was a variety of delicious appetizers, with many vegetarian options, and three flavors of amazing cupcakes for dessert.

The programming for the first half of the concert was innovative. The spoken word, in the form of a selection of poems, was paired with a variety of short pieces. These pairings took two forms: some were read (by the singers) before the musical performances, and some were overlaid on them. Most of the pairings were apt; a poem by Edward Elgar’s wife, Caroline Alice Roberts Elgar, written upon her engagement, was paired with his engagement present to her, the Salut d’Amor. Originally for violin and piano, the piece was here presented in an arrangement for violin, cello, and bassoon. Soprano Jacquelyn Lengfelder performed the reading before the musical performance.

T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a masterpiece of literary modernism, was paired with the Adagio of Albert Roussel’s trio for violin, viola and cello, a piece written about 20 years after “Prufrock.” In this case, baritone Jeffrey Snider read the poem as the instrumentalists performed the piece. The timing was quite good; Snider finished reading just a few bars before the end of the Roussel. Snider’s stentorian voice was an apt match for Eliot’s poem, and his delivery was excellent, including a reading of the quotation from Dante’s Inferno in medieval Italian. The downside of this pairing was that it required considerable multitasking on the part of the audience. For those without that skill, focusing on the music meant missing out on the reading, and vice-versa. It was a shame, because “Prufrock” is simply perfection, and the Roussel, capably played by Jennifer Chang, Aleksandra Holowka, and Karen Hall, is a work that is seldom performed, but worth a listen.

Photo: Courtesy
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

Another interesting innovation was the decision to play four of Schubert’s 24 songs called Winterreise, but instead of singing the songs, Snider again read each poem by Wilhelm Müller, and the ensemble performed Schubert’s music separately, in an arrangement for violin, viola, cello, bassoon, and horn solo. The hornist was Fort Worth Symphony principal horn Mark Houghton. Although the acoustics of the room were not particularly amiable, Houghton’s playing in the small room still had all the golden richness of tone and clarity of line that we hear in Bass Hall.

The only pairing of music and spoken word that didn’t seem to quite work was the evening’s first offering: a poem by Rudyard Kipling (in which he mocks critics! Uh-oh!) paired with Mozart’s arrangement of a Bach fugue. The arrangement, in this version for violin, viola, cello, and bassoon, was interesting, and the musicians performed with appropriate delicacy. But Kipling’s resolute Victorianism didn’t quite fit with the Bach/Mozart hybrid. Reader Lengfelder was not as solid on this poem as on the others: emphasis was not always particularly natural.

The second half of the evening was devoted entirely to premiering Isaacs’ cantata Undelivered.  The undeniable highlight of the evening, the cantata was at turns moving and comic. Mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy and violinist Gary Levinson joined the ensemble for this piece. Suzanne Calvin’s libretto blends elements of the Requiem Mass and other texts, including one original poem, with the text of Kennedy’s undelivered speech. The juxtaposition generally works well; the relationship between the other texts and Kennedy’s speech is often subtle, but the use of the Requiem, especially “Libere nos, Domine” and its English translation, “Deliver us, O Lord” allows the listener to return to the theme of being “undelivered,” as well as to recall, via the funerary purpose of the Requiem Mass, the somber reason that the speech remained undelivered.

The music is quite various—while the tone is in general appropriately somber, the third of the cantata’s five movements is a recitative and scherzo that distinctly channels Gilbert and Sullivan, albeit with contemporary tonalities. Immediately following is the doleful fourth movement, “Incident, Commentary, Benediction” that quotes the Dies Irae. The quotations from Kennedy’s speech are sung by mezzo-soprano Dupuy; Isaacs’ stated reason for giving the speech to a female singer is to separate the text “from the charisma of President Kennedy.” The other two singers, according to Isaacs, function as a Greek chorus, providing commentary. For the most part, this is an effective strategy. The speech appropriately remains the centerpiece.

The musicians, especially the strings, performed their often-difficult parts with panache and seemed well-rehearsed. Isaacs’ conducting was restrained, as was appropriate to the ensemble size. Overall, this was a compelling premiere.

» Read our interview with Gregory Sullivan Isaacs and Suzanne Calvin, about Undelivered, here Thanks For Reading

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Freedom Verse
The Hall Ensemble celebrates poetry, music and an undelivered JFK speech with an innovative concert, featuring a world premiere cantata.
by J. Robin Coffelt

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