About the Program

The Poet's Prism

April 29 & 30, 2023

Our spring concert explores the intersection of the natural world, poetry, and music. From the florid phrases of the Romantics to straightforward lyrics of 20th-century singer-songwriters, poets have communicated their particular worldview using language couched in metaphors of nature. Over the same centuries, composers have taken inspiration from poets’ words and sought to capture the spirit of the texts. The result has been a large and deeply varied body of choral works.

Our program opens with Robert Schumann’s Zigeunerleben, the last in a set of three poems by Emanuel Geibel. Composed in 1840, the piece romanticizes the free life of nomadic people. Although the title has long been translated as “The Gypsy Life,” the term gypsy (born from the misconception that these itinerant people originated from Egypt) is today considered an ethnic slur. In fact, the Romani people have their origins in northern India, but live as a diaspora worldwide, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

The sensual French poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is met by the lush chords and delicately intertwined vocal lines of composer Morten Lauridsen in the Chansons des Roses. Not unlike the enfolding petals of a rose, the musical motives in the choral cycle are echoed from movement to movement, until in the beloved “Dirait-on,” the musical strands all come together.

World-renowned cellist Pau Casals also composed for cello, orchestra, choir, and solo voice. Cantemus soprano Melissa Lugo will perform, in Catalan, De Cara del Mar, the third of his Six Songs for Soprano. Born in Catalonia, Casals was living in exile in Puerto Rico when this song was first recorded. Melissa says singing it lets her connect to her own Puerto Rican heritage and share it with others.

Carlos Guastavino was an important 20th-century Argentinian composer whose output focused heavily on songs for voice and piano. The texts to his Indianas proffer innocuous love poetry, but Guastavino employs folk and dance forms that were forbidden by Argentina’s 1960s fascist regime.

Shining Light on Water is an impressionistic layering of treble voices and piano composed by Cantemus member Brittany Betts. The work was initially conceived to accompany a video montage of a collection of “Water Reflections” photographs by famed local photographic artist (and former Cantemus member) Dorothy Kerper Monnelly. Six Cantemus treble singers are accompanied by the composer’s mother, Wendy Betts.

The centerpiece of our concert is the Sügismaastikud (Autumn Landscapes) of Veljo Tormis (1930-2017). Tormis was perhaps the most important Estonian composer of the last century, establishing a uniquely Estonian voice on the world stage. On the surface, this work seems to be a typical poetic cycle from late summer’s warmth to winter’s cold. In fact, the work is meant to express dissent against the occupation of Soviet forces in Estonia. (Despite the declaration of Estonian independence in 1918 following the Russian Revolution, Estonia spent the majority of the 20th century in occupation, first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and then again by the Soviets, until 1991).

From the serene beauty of the opening bars to the harrowing dissonance of the final musical gesture, Tormis takes the listener on a journey that reflects a century fraught with destruction and devastation. The calm warmth of late summer (“On hilissuvi”) gives way to purpled clouds that race across the sky, an ominous portent of danger (“Üle taeva jooksevad pilved”). The storm subsides (“Kahvatu valgus”), but only muddied roads strewn with blood-red leaves remain (“Valusalt punased lehed”). A bitterly cold wind scatters the remaining autumn leaves (“Tuul kõnnumaa kohal”). The countryside, ravaged by war, is barely recognizable (“Külm sügisöö”). As the last moments of autumn give way to winter (“Kanarbik”), one final, beautiful image remains: the sun’s light flickering on the fields of heather. Only what we are seeing is not the sun at all — but the blazing light of a village engulfed in flames.

American poet Jake Adam York is known for his works that remember heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Abide is a poem inspired by a vinyl recording of Thelonius Monk performing the classic hymn “Abide with Me.” Contemporary composer Dan Forrest captures the beauty of a summer night and the enduring quality of a great love found in York’s poem, all while subtly quoting the well-known hymn tune throughout the piece.

The concert closer, Let the River Run, an arrangement of the popular song by Carly Simon, uses a river as a metaphor for social change, at once alluding to the River Jordan of the Old Testament “promised land” and the New Testament “New Jerusalem” of the end times, when peace and justice will rule the earth.

—Jason Iannuzzi, Artistic Director