Nicholas Phan & Brooklyn Rider

GBH Calderwood Studio

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Tenor Nicholas Phan teams up with adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider for a performance that places the past and present in direct and powerful dialogue.  

The program features two Boston premieres, Rufus Wainwright’s Trois valses anglaises and Nico Muhly’s Stranger, a song cycle commissioned for Mr. Phan and Brooklyn Rider that connects and illuminates four American stories: an academic history of Chinese railroad workers, the personal narrative of an immigrant from Sicily, a Chinese-American man fighting legal discrimination, and a wife’s letter to her deployed husband in World War II. 

The program also features a new phase of work exploring love and death through the music of Franz Schubert and Rufus Wainwright, a bold compositional pairing that reinforces these artists’ fearless rejection of presenting the obvious. Wainwright, an American-Canadian composer and songwriter not yet 50 years old, is an enormous fan of Schubert, and in the hands of these cleverly genre-crossing musicians, he, too, has a place in the same musical world as the Austrian icon 200 years his senior. The Boston premiere of Wainwright’s Trois valses anglaises sits alongside Schubert’s stormy Death and the Maiden quartet, a longtime mainstay of the chamber music repertoire. 

Brooklyn Rider is Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen (violins), Nicholas Cords (viola), and Michael Nicolas (cello), joined for the first part of this performance by Nicholas Phan (tenor).

Program and Notes

Thomas Campion (1567-1620) was one of the great poet-composers of the Elizabethan era, creating unified songs of clear lyrics and subtle music unmatched by his peers. “Never weather-beaten sail” is emblematic of his best work. Like a Renaissance Randy Newman, Campion creates joyful, pleasing music that belies the darkness of the text. Beneath the fluid melody is a supplicant at the end of their wits who aches to be rid of the gloom of this world. The sailor is beaten by wind and waves, the pilgrim is weakened by hunger, but these struggles have nothing on the state of the devout longing for paradise. The lyric itself wrenches the listener between poles. Harsh consonants interrupt an easy sequence of vowels. The word “come” is barely spoken before “quickly,” as if the hopeful song could not end soon enough. Heaven is described not solely by its beauty, but in opposition to tragedy and the things of this world. All this as the music floats serenely by. It is music for the paradise of the second stanza existing in the world of the first. Amid that friction of music and text, Campion confronts the central paradox of Christianity, that hope and weariness, joy and pain can exist simultaneously in the longing for something greater. Even in the inevitable wreckage of earthly tragedy, there is the promise of eternal life.
© Connor Buckley, 2021

“Never weather-beaten sail”

Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore,

Never tired pilgrim’s limbs affected slumber more;

Than my weary sprite now longs to fly out of my troubled breast.


O come quickly, O come quickly, O come quickly sweetest Lord, and take my soul to rest.

O come quickly, O come quickly, O come quickly sweetest Lord, and take my soul to rest.

It may surprise some that a pop musician and son of folk musicians Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle is a devotee of opera, but the genre courses through Rufus Wainwright (b.1973)’s work. His melodies are long and linger on vowels the way Bellini's or Donizetti's do, and the cadences in his music recall Verdi and Bizet. By his own admission, he is obsessed and has been since his teens. His love of the genre is symptomatic of a love readily apparent throughout his writing, a love for the human voice. Though the projects he has pursued in his career seem disparate—several hugely successful pop albums, a couple of song cycles, and two operas of his own—they are bound unequivocally by the centrality of the voice. This new expression of that deep love manifests itself in one of the most popular forms of the 19th century, the waltz. It is a form that Wainwright has explored in the past, notably with his songs Hometown Waltz, The Maker Makes, and Tulsa, each in a different style, lyrically varied, and characteristic of his penchant for mining old models for newness.

As with the current set of songs, Wainwright’s lyrics are often abstract in theme and form but punctuated by concrete images, allowing the listener to follow along in a string of sensation. The Trois Valses are conversational in tone but evocative of deep and specific emotion—the memory of a lost love, melancholy in the face of beauty. Like the waltz itself, they elicit feelings both of unbreaking human connection and distant nostalgia. They can be grand in concept (“Listen to the queen”) but humdrum in imagery (“Try to understand why it feels so cold”). In Wainwright’s texts, poetic dignity lives side by side with our everyday feelings.

© Connor Buckley, 2021

Trois valses anglaises (Boston premiere)

I. Watching the monarchs come in

Watching the monarchs come in

Paper wings over the ocean

Realize a butterfly’s sting is to be noble over everything

Watching the monarchs go by

Means that it’s fall and will soon be cold

Realize a butterfly’s cry

Is always good-bye, see you again when I’m old


One must be a monarch in the dark

One must be a monarch in the dark

Watching the monarchs go round

Makes me feel sad that you’re not around

Realize a butterfly’s crown

Is understanding the world upside down


Oh how I wish I could understand

The way this upside-down world should be

Realize a butterfly’s pain

Is hardly the pin prick that death brings to claim it for me


One must be a monarch in the dark…

Watching the monarchs come in…

 

II. Listen to the queen

Listen to the queen

Listen to the queen

Try to understand

What it is she means

Try to understand

Understand the dream 

Whilst upon the lake...

It’s gleaming

Listen to the world

Listen to the world

Try to understand

Why it feels so cold

Try to understand

Understand the dream

Whilst upon the lake...

It’s steaming

Whilst upon the lake...

It’s steaming

Whilst upon the lake...

I’m leaving

Listen to the queen

Listen to the queen

Try to understand

What it is I mean

Try to understand

Understand the dream

Whilst upon the lake...  

 

III. Friend in common

We have a friend in common

Or shall we say a person

You’ve spoken to this someone

And so have I

We have a friend in common

Alright let’s say a human

You’ve gazed upon them somewhat

And here are we

And perhaps there’s a tiny molecule

That’s escaped from me inside of you or from you to me

We have a friend in common

We have a friend in common

Or perhaps in this massive universe

There’s another happy two of us or is it just

We have a friend in common

Wearing a cape and have my hair down

(I’ve) slipped on the ice and now it’s snowing

Or is it just

We have a friend in common

Nico Muhly (b.1981) is a gifted composer of instrumental and vocal music whose work has been performed by some of the most prestigious organizations in classical music. His work Stranger, commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society with support from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, had its world premiere given by Nicholas Phan and Brooklyn Rider at the Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on January 24, 2020.

 

Stranger sets to music seven passages of prose related to migration. Each represents a distinct and passionate point of view: academics questioning how to best represent the lives of Chinese railroad workers; an interview with Rose Breci, who immigrated through Ellis Island; a letter from Wong Ar Chong against Chinese exclusion; a Bible passage from Leviticus on the treatment of strangers; a letter from a Chinese citizen who has experienced horrific racism; a letter from Isaac Metzker about the plight of poor Jewish immigrants; and a letter from a woman to her love overseas during WWII. Muhly often sets prose rather than poetry, enjoying the flexibility of a text free of an already musical verse pattern. Like one of his idols, Steve Reich, Muhly seemingly delights in highlighting the intrinsic musicality, color, and power of plain speech and writing. His settings often render shades of complexity accessible when they would otherwise be difficult to parse on first reading.

  

The text here matters profoundly. It is not simply an excuse for music. This is apparent from the start: “Here is the challenge” the tenor sings, not only to name the challenge of the text to follow, but to assert to the listener that this is worth paying attention to. What unfolds is a complex of deeply expressed emotion punctuated by music.  What is rushed, what feels recited, what is melodious, and what is repeated all serve to instill multiple meanings into the words. Each movement bleeds into the next, making the boundaries of who is speaking and who is being addressed porous.  As Muhly himself notes in an essay on the piece,

  

“When the tenor sings the line ‘How do we as scholars give voice to the voiceless?’ is he the scholar or the voiceless? When he sings ‘I ask you, where is your golden rule, your Christian charity, and the fruits of your Bible teachings, when you talk about doing unto others as you would have them do to you?’ is he the author or the reader of the Chinese immigrant's letter?  Are we, as the audience, meant to hear this sentence in the current political climate, or are we to imagine ourselves back in 1879?” 

 

Repetition and textural shifts in the setting make the text more multifaceted. In the otherwise bustling second movement set on Ellis Island, the string quartet calms to envelop the tenor’s recitation of “who’s gonna take care of you.” Originally the final utterance of a plain statement, the line repeats, translating itself into a question. Again, the motivation is uncertain—is it the reader or Rose herself who is reflecting? The ambiguity is placed upon the listener to work out. 

 

Muhly frames the texts throughout as things to wrestle with but perhaps not to solve. The third movement is sung straight through as if delivered with maximum clarity, but the string accompaniment questions this with sudden shifts like in the commotion after “free and equal.” Space, most evident in the sixth movement, provides time for reflection on the tenor’s words among pure music. The piece closes unexpectedly with a letter from a woman to her love stationed overseas during WWII. The text, simultaneously poetic and banal and crafted in turns with both emotive melody and routine recitation, would at first seem to be a tranquil and lovingly rendered happy ending. As the tenor sings “I love you and miss you so terribly tonight,” this trajectory seems certain. The strings, however, may have another lens, and again the listener must decide what has really been said. 

© Connor Buckley, 2021

 

Stranger

I. Here is the challenge: how do we as scholars give voice to the voiceless? How do we understand lived experience if we have nothing from the actors themselves? Is it possible to recover and interpret the past?

     Text: Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin    
“Fragments of the Past: Archaeology, History, and the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America”
     Historical Archaeology, Vol 49, No. 1 (2015), pp 1-3

 II. And then when you got inside of the building, Ellis Island, we were one in after another. And at the end of the line there was a doctor. And he examined your eyes. If your eyes was good, pass.

They ask you who you’re going to see, where you’re going. How much you have and who’s gonna take care of you. They asked my mother, ‘Who are you going to see?’ ‘My husband, of course.’

Everybody is nervous when you go through that doctor. Because it's the fear that you don't know what you have in your eyes. You know what I mean? What they could find. And it was fear. But after you pass, it's a great joy and a great relief in your mind and heart. 

The food was the same because we always cooked the same no matter if we were there or even now. Food is the same. We do our own cooking.  We know what we want.

      Text: Rose Breci; Transcript of an oral history conducted October 21, 1985 by Dr. Willa Appel:  The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation Oral History Project

 III. In your Declaration of Independence it is asserted that all men are born free and equal; it is understood by the civilized world that the United States of America is a free country, but I fear there is a backward step being taken by the government. 

The Honorable Senator calls us heathens, but I should judge from the tone of his letter that he was somewhat lacking in Christian charity. Let him look at the fire in Chicago or yellow fever in New Orleans, and he will find Chinamen giving as much, according to their means, as any other people. 

You go against the principles of George Washington, you go against the American flag, and you act in conflict with Christian charity and principle. I ask you, where is your golden rule, your Christian charity, and the fruits of your Bible teachings, when you talk about doing unto others as you would have them do to you?

     Text: Letter from Wong Ar Chong to William Lloyd Garrison, February 28, 1879

 IV. The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

      Text: Leviticus 19:34

 V. These threats and intimidations and riotous and bloody acts, committed under the light of nineteenth-century civilization, in this nation which claims to be a leading nation in intelligence, morality, and culture, shock our sense of national pride as well as our sense of justice, honor, and right.

The Scripture injunction in regard to the ‘stranger sojourning among us’ has been sanctioned and reasserted by all modern civilization, and it is abhorrent that such violations of the laws of hospitality and humanity should be repeated in one community after another on our Coast.

      Text: “To the president of the United States, and to the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled” [Protest against ill-treatment of the Chinese. (s.l., 1885)]

 VI. Everyone cries and wails. Women with little babies, who’ve come to their husbands, are being detained. Who can stand this suffering? When a man wants to ask his wife something, or when a father wants to see his child, they don’t let him. Children get sick, they are taken to a hospital and it often happens that they never come back. We wear the same shirts for three or four weeks, because we don’t have our baggage with us.

      Text: Isaac Metzker; A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward (New York: Schocken Books, 1971)

VII. My Love: Can you feel the brilliant sunshine on this page? And the peace? And hear the splashings of the summer? And the laughter of the children? And the hardness of this seat in this anchored row boat? And see the trees and the clouds reflected in this lake of fresh water?

My thoughts tonight are far-reaching. I know my thoughts of you are very tender ones. Perhaps it’s the classical music on the radio, or perhaps it’s just because it is Saturday night that has prompted me to write tonight. Whatever the reason, I know I love you and miss you so terribly tonight.

     Text: Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith (ed.)
    Since You Went Away: World War II Letters from American Women on the Home Front (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Given Franz Schubert (1797-1828)’s undeniable stature in the pantheon of musical luminaries, it is a challenging exercise more than two hundred years later to imagine him as greatly under-appreciated within his own lifetime. There was much left to be published of his work upon his death, much of it spread out in the hands of his small social circle in Vienna. He was known in his day as a composer of mere hausmusik; part songs, lieder, and various pieces for piano. Almost none of his large-scale works were known by the Viennese public, much less outside of Vienna. Schubert himself was not a virtuoso performer—he wrote no concertos, so his cause was not advanced by the popular virtuosos of the era. Italy was all the rage: the incomparable and devilish violinist Paganini was enormously popular, as was the music of Rossini. And so it was left mostly to Schubert and his intimate circle of friends to organize evenings of informal performances comprised mostly of lieder and part songs with the ink still drying, referred to as Schubertiaden

It took later figures such as Robert Schumann, who was an extremely prescient observer of the musical landscape, to elevate Schubert’s status to a wider audience. Schumann’s description from an 1840 essay on Schubert’s 9th Symphony for the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik could just as easily apply to this quartet: “And this heavenly length, like a fat novel in four volumes by Jean Paul—never-ending, and if only that the reader may go on creating in the same vein afterwards. How refreshing is their sense of inexhaustible wealth where with others one always fears the ending, troubled by the presentiment of ultimate disappointment.” 

Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet (1824), marks an important transition in Schubert’s music for string quartet from the hausmusik-infused works, composed mainly with his family quartet in mind, to works of grand dramatic scope (the Rosamunde also appeared earlier in the same year). Reluctantly buoyed by the musicianship of the Shuppanzigh String Quartet and a desire to increase his public scope, this quartet was composed just as Schubert came to know that he was seriously ill with syphilis. His dark state of mind could be summed up in this excerpt from a letter to a friend: “I feel myself to be the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world.”

This was the setting in which Schubert called upon the voice of Death from an earlier song (a setting of Matthias Claudius’ ‘Death and the Maiden’ from 1817). While we hear in the overall quartet a sense of mortal struggle, piqued emotions, and intense drama, viscerally reflecting Schubert’s state of affairs, he chose the slow movement to feature Death’s song in a mantra-like theme and set of variations. Seven years after the original setting, the words of the song clearly took on heightened meaning in light of his struggles:

Der Tod:

Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

Death:


Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
I am a friend, and come not to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
Softly shall you sleep in my arms! 

With tireless creativity, Schubert managed to compose some 140 or so more works before Death came far too early for the young composer, just 31.

© Nicholas Cords, 2021

 

Artist change: Due to complications with continued travel restrictions as a result of COVID-19, Anne Sofie von Otter is unable to perform at this concert. 

Seating for this performance is limited. This performance is not eligible for group discounts.

“A string quartet of boundless imagination.”

NPR

GBH Calderwood Studio information

2021/22 season performances at GBH Calderwood Studio are generously sponsored by Susan & Michael Thonis and the Barr Foundation through its ArtsAmplified initiative.

 

This performance is made possible in part by support from Celebrity Series' LIVE PERFORMANCE! Arts for All Innovation Funds.

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