05/07/12 By Virginia A. Schaefer
Fred Hersch, “Leaves of Grass” at New England Conservatory
Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, April 26, 2012
With “Leaves of Grass,” pianist and composer Fred Hersch has created a jazz setting of selections from 19th-century poet Walt Whitman’s ground-breaking and wide-ranging book. After completing the work in 2003, Hersch presented it in a few cities and released a recording on Palmetto in 2005. Its first Boston performance took place at New England Conservatory, where Hersch is a longtime member of the faculty and where, as a student, he was first inspired by Whitman’s poetry.
Along with Hersch on piano, the instrumentalists were Conservatory students Andrew Halchak on alto saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet; Wyatt Palmer on tenor saxophone; Jake Baldwin on trumpet; Tim Shneier on trombone; Valerie Thompson on cello; Ehud Ettun on bass; and Connor Baker on drums. The vocalists were Conservatory student Tommy Boynton and noted jazz singer and Conservatory faculty member Dominique Eade.
Hersch has incorporated several musical approaches into his mostly thorough-composed work. One (or occasionally, both) of the vocalists is singing or speaking most of the time. The instrumentalists accompany them and play occasional interludes. Boynton performs most of the vocals, while Eade’s part seems to represent an alternate voice of the poet. Out of the epic work, Hersch has chosen verses that convey universally recognizable experiences and emotions, and that celebrate human endeavors as well as natural world. He has also fittingly included verses that refer to music and other sounds.
The instrumental overture has an Anglo-American folk sound, using sparsely-voiced harmonies with open fifths. That musical style continues as Eade sings the first vocal segment, a straightforward melody in which the Muse instructs the poet to “Sing me the universal.” Boynton speaks the next segment, a challenge that ends “I am not what you supposed, but far different....” The ensemble accompanies with a vigorous, march-like sound with prominent snare drum and trumpet.
The marching beat leads into the first excerpt from “Song of Myself”, the long poem in which the poet lays out his all-encompassing philosophy of life. In the section “I celebrate myself,” in which I includes you, Boynton supplely articulates the verse in the wide-ranging melody. In an apt treatment of the excerpt’s last two lines, Boynton speaks and is then answered by the ensemble as a chorus, evoking a religious leader and his congregation.
“A child said What is the Grass?” brings a contrast in music, peaceful and impressionistic, starting with piano alone. Boynton sings expressively of the grass as both delicate shoots of life and as the “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Boynton conveys spontaneity, enhanced when he sings a few high notes in soft falsetto.
In the spoken excerpt “A learner with the simplest,” Boynton enumerates the poet’s many occupations, “A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman...” The list is taken up in turn by ensemble members, creating an intriguing spoken canon. The musical groove shifts again as Boynton sings “I exist as I am” to brisk mainstream jazz with a catchy background figure and an improvised-sounding tenor sax solo. Boynton follows with a gentle ballad about loving, “I am he that walks,” intertwined by the cello’s song-like line.
As Boynton sings the speech-like “Through me forbidden voices,” the accompaniment starts with propulsive chords and rises in tempo to a samba-like rhythm with a soaring melody that reaching a peak on the phrase “dazzling and tremendous.”
Boynton mostly speaks “Now I will do nothing but listen,” starting with an accompanied description of the sounds of everyday life, such as birds and human voices. He is gradually joined by instrumental interpretations and demonstrations of the sounds, including laughter, anger, alarm-bells, a train whistle, a violoncello, a cornet, and finally an orchestra.
The excerpt that starts “I fly those flights of a fluid and swallowing soul” is a golden meld of the meaning and mellifluous sound of the Whitman’s words. Boynton’s voice is borne by the soaring music, with counter-melodies interwoven by the clarinet and then other instruments. “My lovers suffocate me” stands out musically, with a 1930s Ellington sound featuring an insinuating wah-wah trombone. Boynton sings the poet’s wry observations on love’s perils.
“Why should I wish to see God” returns to the poet’s spiritual quest and a quiet accompaniment, with Boynton singing of the poet’s discovery of God in unexpected places. A spoken line, “And as to you Death,” dramatically introduces the poet’s defiant embrace of his own mortality. To close the “Song of Myself” segment, Eade speaks the opening lines of “A child said What is the grass?” in the only place where Hersch has reprised a verse.
For the program’s final segment, Hersch has chosen selections that focus on serenity and spiritual fulfillment. Eade opens “The Mystic Trumpeter” with a spoken invocation and then sings shiningly the poet’s inner music, embodying the mystical sound in a sometimes melismatic line, while the actual trumpeter intersperses a Dorian melody. After a hymn-like passage, the music makes a dramatic return to minor on the line “Blow again trumpeter!”
“At the Close of Day” is a gossamer instrumental interlude in 3/4 time, starting with piano, bass, and drums playing in Hersch’s trio style and joined briefly by Eade’s wordless singing. The dreamlike “The Sleepers” is an evocative song in 6/8 time, underpinned by a haunting instrumental figure. Boynton sings of an imagined nocturnal walk, observing the earth’s people as they sleep peacefully. Eade sings “Spirit That Form’d This Scene” in a tone of reverence toward the earth’s beauty, such as “These gorges, turbulent-clear streams.”
“On the Beach at Night Alone” is a contemplative instrumental interlude, which features a bass solo. “After the Dazzle of Day” is a fitting finale, with Boynton and Eade singing together (the only place in the program) a hymn-like tune about the inner music after the sound fades, “After the clangor of organ majestic, ... Silent, athwart my soul, moves the symphony true.”
All the evening’s performers contributed to a commendable presentation under the subtle direction of the composer. Particularly impressive was student Tommy Boynton in the lead vocal role. With “Leaves of Grass,” Fred Hersch has created a cohesive and moving work that inspires listeners to discover or revisit the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Virginia A. Schaefer
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