Dallas — Three outstanding musicians came together Friday night on the Soundings: new music series at the Nasher Sculpture Center, performing a remarkable concert of music by Kurt Weill, George Crumb, and Eric Nathan, featuring settings of texts by the two greatest American poets of the 19th century, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
Pianist Gilbert Kalish, who can deservedly be characterized as a living musical treasure, most recently appeared in Dallas for an appropriately monumental reading of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata in April of 2015. Friday night, he was the anchoring force of the concert, joining baritone William Sharp for Weill’s Four Whitman Songs from 1947. German immigrant Weill, probably best known for the show tunes “Mack the Knife” and “September Song,” here applies the mildly pungent harmonies and frank pictorialism of the cabaret and Broadway to Whitman’s majestic lyricism, with breathtaking effect. Three of the poems, “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” “O Captain! My Captain!,” and “Dirge for Two Veterans,” have attracted the attention of numerous composers (most famously Vaughan Williams in the monumental cantata Dona nobis pacem); another, “Come up from the Fields Father,” is certainly less well-known, and almost melodramatic in the depiction of a Civil War-era family learning of the death of their son and brother.
Weill unabashedly throws in pianistic special effects (drum-like accents, for instance, or a running figure to represent a character running in “Come up from the Fields Father”); baritone Sharp and pianist Kalish focused on the almost pop-tune innocence of the music, assisted by the gorgeous lyrical quality of Sharp’s voice. The result, as Weill surely intended, was a breathtaking serenity and unexpected overall profundity.
Soprano Tony Arnold then joined pianist Kalish for another Whitman setting, American composer George Crumb’s Apparitions from 1979, with a text made up of appropriate fragments from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Whitman here metaphorically mourned the death of Abraham Lincoln, while exploring broader topics of love, life, and death. Crumb enhances Whitman’s brilliant use of words by having the pianist reach into the piano for effects ranging from metallic strumming to violently percussive moments. Meanwhile, the soprano must range from frankly operatic declamation to extended imitation of birdcalls, all of which soprano Arnold achieved beautifully, with a clear, bright timbre and an obvious insight into this profound text.
Kalish performed the premiere of Appariations nearly 40 years ago; Friday night he participated as pianist in the world premiere of American composer Eric Nathan’s Some Favored Nook, essentially an extended dramatic cantata for baritone, soprano, and piano based on texts from Emily Dickinson and her literary mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson is largely remembered for his positive role in encouraging Dickinson during her life and being largely responsible for publishing and bringing her work to a larger public after her death (while also being somewhat castigated for editing and “improving” her poetry for early twentieth-century tastes). He also served as the white commander of an all-Black regiment in the Civil War, and his memoir of that episode provides some of the most moving moments of Some Favored Nook.
Soprano Arnold’s bright vocal timbre provided the perfect Dickinsonian aura of innocence combined with genius to present the Dickinson texts, while baritone Sharp applied the assertive yet velvety qualities of his voice to the Higginson texts—words from a 19th-century gentleman who was ahead of his time enough to recognize the humanity of African Americans as well as the genius of an unknown female poet. Composer Nathan, present in the audience for this momentous premiere, provided a captivatingly rich setting of these texts, with an impressive command of simple, economic, and ultimately breathtaking strategies. For instance, a repeated note motif in the piano part (masterfully realized by Kalish) served as the energy of a bee (in one of Dickinson’s many “bee” poems) and in turn became militant and thunderous in a passage describing the Civil War. And one particularly masterful meeting of text and music occurs in the twelfth of the fifteen short movements, in which Higginson describes the serene countenance of a dying soldier, a former slave who, as he breathes his last, “realizes that freedom is sweeter than life.”
Some Favored Nook closes with a stunning unaccompanied duet, bringing an end to a work that deserves to be heard again and again. As so often during its relatively short existence, the Soundings series created, in this concert, an unforgettable musical evening.