Elegiac sound meant to heal 9/11 wounds

Critic's Corner//Music

Puckett's `This Mourning,' with delicate tones of crystal, honors Pentagon victims

November 21, 2006|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

Artists express things the rest of us can't, especially in the face of tragedies and horrors. So it was to artists we turned after the enormity of Sept. 11, and it is to them that we will continue to turn, in hopes of fathoming, or merely accepting, that event's long-lingering toll.

A year after the attacks, John Adams composed a compelling reflection on the tragedy, On the Transmigration of Souls, that won the Pulitzer Prize. On Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, another work that struck me as being of comparable expressive weight received its world premiere by the Washington Chorus, which commissioned it in memory of those killed at the Pentagon.

Joel Puckett's This Mourning takes as its starting point the text Lux aeterna ("Let eternal light shine upon them") from the end of the Latin Mass for the dead, and adds Emily Dickinson's "Requiem," with its chillingly appropriate line, "Taken from us this morning." More of the Dickinson verse and Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "A Great Man's Death" (written to commemorate Lincoln) provide the remainder of the elegiac text. In the space of roughly 20 minutes, the score revisits loss and pain, but gradually adds reassuring layers of comfort to create a calming memorial.

The 29-year-old Puckett, who lives in Catonsville and teaches at Towson University, writes for voices and orchestra with assurance and color in this new piece. His harmonic language does not necessarily break new ground, but it speaks clearly, potently. And in passages where glimmers of consonance emerge from atonal clusters, the result is striking.

A few elements are perhaps too obvious, including the percussive punctuation after the chorus' first explosive utterance of the word, "Taken." But Puckett makes everything seem inevitable, from the sirenlike wail of violins early in the piece to the heavy, yet propulsive, tread of the lower strings that back the tenor soloist in the second movement.

The third and final movement reaches profound heights. As the chorus intones Dickinson's lines, "There must be guests in Eden, All the rooms are full," a cathartic, almost ecstatic rise of melody and emotion unfolds.

Throughout this movement is the otherworldly haze produced by 40 crystal glasses, tuned to different pitches -- the composer's most inspired touch. The effect of hearing those delicate tones dissipating one by one as the work ends is as subtle as it is touching.

Sunday's performance, superbly guided by longtime Washington Chorus music director Robert Shafer, found the ensemble in polished, strongly balanced form. Michael Forest was the ardent tenor soloist. The orchestra and glass players likewise did admirable work. The prolonged silence in the hall that followed the last wisp of sound spoke volumes.

The audience, which included families of Pentagon victims, also heard a nobly phrased account of Mozart's Requiem (Forest and baritone Kevin Deas made particularly vivid solo contributions) and Beethoven's brief Elegischer Gesang. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, introduced the premiere of This Mourning with eloquent remarks about the nature of elegy, "humanity's response to our common mortality."

Bold new piano music

Baltimore doesn't have a thriving new music scene, but it got a welcome boost with the arrival last year of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An die Musik, run by composer Judah Adashi. For its season-opening concert Friday night, the series offered a heady and hefty sampling of American piano music from the past 25 years. I caught the first half of the program, which included two particularly impressive achievements.

It was rewarding to hear the specially constructed, 30-minute suite from Michael Hersch's two-hour work completed last year, The Vanishing Pavilions, inspired by poetry of Christopher Middleton. But the complete score, premiered last month in Philadelphia, deserves a local airing -- and soon.

Hersch played the suite, which gripped the ear right from the opening movement, its downward slicing motive reflecting the lines, "So the flashing knife will split memory down the middle." With the occasional insertion of familiar harmony amid the thick, forbidding dissonance, Hersch's writing is fresh and astonishingly powerful -- like his playing.

Another fascinating discovery was the Sonata Andina from 2000 by Gabriela Lena Frank. Its inventive use of Latin American folk elements produces many a vivid effect, particularly when the pianist is called upon to do rhythmic clapping and tongue-clucking. Lura Johnson-Lee's performance had exceptional vitality, color and impact.


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