By Scott MacClelland
SUMMER’S LEAVE took an exquisite turn late Saturday afternoon when mezzo-soprano Somaaz Adeli and friends performed music by Americans, both living and dead, about America. Against a backdrop of Monterey pines, seen from the interior of Erdman Chapel at Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, Adeli was joined by the Pacific Collegiate Callista Chorale, composer Scott Ordway, composer/pianist Ben Dorfan and clarinetist Jeff Gallagher. On paper, the program looked off-the-cuff, even haphazard, but in concert the personalities on hand carried the day. Adeli’s centerpiece was the US premiere of Ordway’s song-cycle Girl in the Snow of 2018, musical settings of Ordway’s own texts.
In a note on his website, Ordway cited as inspiration an encounter with a set of children’s songs by Edvard Grieg. He writes, “Girl in the Snow is a monodrama in eleven parts depicting the sensory and spiritual re-awakening of a young girl after an unspecified dislocation causes her to forget everything about her life except for the capacity to feel love.” Lasting 36 minutes in performance, the greatest contrasts took place in the piano part. Paced block chords often set the tone for some of the verses, as in “The Mystery of Home,” where some of the chords resembled the unique harmonic character of French composer Olivier Messiaen. For “The Grove of Quaking Aspens,” the keyboard did indeed quake tremulously. Rolling arpeggios in the bass register gave support to “The Mystery of Love.” The piano brightened for “The Rabbit, Warm in Her Burrow” and quieted and slowed for “The Silence of the World.” A thudding bass tone attended the final section, “Memory Play: And I Come to the Fields and Spacious Palaces of My Memory”—one of three verses “freely adapted” from St Augustine.
Every setting of words to music creates an expectation that starts with the words. In the greatest examples, the composer makes the music subordinate, reinforcing or ‘painting’ the words with music. This is why the choice of words is paramount, and why most composers of vocal music prefer to choose verses rich with a long heritage of poetic devices, techniques that have stood the test of time. In this case, Ordway comes up short with his texts, which, sentiment to the contrary, are more prosaic than poetic and less than convincing as words a naïve child would utter. (The six pages of texts handed out only seemed to underscore the disconnect.)
To open the program, Alice Hughes led her high school choir of ten young men and fifteen young women in a cappella settings by Ordway of three short verses adapted from the Lithuanian oral tradition. Here, and in just six minutes, words and music were woven more effectively, the music itself with palpable richness of texture. Cascading entries in the first movement echoed techniques used by Rachmaninoff in his Vespers. Broken phrases and choice dissonances marked the second movement. Overlapping entries and slow-against-fast, with selected rests, drove the third. Kudos to the young singers who rightly made their director proud.
An impulsive afterthought, John Cage’s 4’33”—those minutes and seconds of silence intended to force listeners to hear everything going on around them—lasted less than half that time, while Adeli and Gallagher sat up front trying to look engaged. Gallagher’s remarks beforehand gave the audience too little information to ‘get’ it.
Onward. Gallagher and Dorfan then gave a beguiling account of George Gershwin’s Three Preludes, followed by “The Man I Love” with Adeli at her most seductive. “Who would, would you?” she purred. Dorfan then played Scottish Legend for solo piano by rarely heard American composer Amy Beach, followed by the anonymous but haunting Shenandoah with Adeli, and another old folksong, Shady Grove, both in arrangements attributed to Christopher J Hoh. Dorfan’s settings of “Spring and Fall,” to words by Francis Hopkinson, and “Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson, preceded “Not While I’m Around” from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, executed (pun intended) by Dorfan and Gallagher.
Adeli ended the show with Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” Outside the shadows lengthened as the sun sighed its farewell to summer.