About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network


Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



A quiet place

03/01/2000 -  
'My business is to love' (songs and readings based on the poems of and letters of Emily Dickinson)
Renée Fleming (soprano), Claire Bloom (speaker), Helen Yorke (piano)
Charles Nelson Reilly (director)

This evening of songs and readings includes settings of Emily Dickinson's poems by Ricky Ian Gordon, Robert Beaser, Lee Hoiby, Ernst Bacon, Andrée Previn, Scott Wheeler, Michael Tilson Thomas, Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem and Jake Heggie. The scenario and text is by William Luce.

Emily Dickinson's poetry seems a natural fit with contemporary art song. Her deceptively simple lines and disturbing symbolic conjunctions trapped in a web of sound play ask to be set to music, and her dry humour and deep feeling provide a personal focus for the voice in the absence of a conventional poetic ego.

The songs in this evening's selection, about half of them commissioned for the event, the rest representing a comprehensive range of contemporary American composers, suggest that the fit is so natural there isn't a great deal of choice for the composer: almost all of them present a simple, speech-informed setting of the words, with an atmospheric or antiphonal piano line. The exception, Michael Tilson Thomas' setting of "Fame", strongly jazz-influenced, is striking and bitterly humorous but somehow tries too hard not to do the obvious. But Dickinson's ability to inbue familiar words with pure feeling doesn't need clever stuff: the music can and should simply provide a physical realisation of her poetic voice. Ned Rorem's shattering setting of "Love's stricken 'why' " is the most extreme song because the poem is the most intense.

This project was originally devised for the late Arlene Augér and Julie Christie, and was inherited by Renée Fleming, who served as music director and also worked to commission the new works. Fleming's commitment is undoubted, and her preparation thorough, give or take a few mistakes the words which suggest that the settings haven't quite got the internal rhymes and word rhythms right. But her stage personality is too theatrical and demonstrative for the lapidiary texts and music. She acts as if she is in pain at least as much as finding the emotion in the songs. Her performance of the Previn settings, which provide a comparatively generic channel for her to pour expression into, were the most organic, even though the songs were the least intersting in themselves.

Claire Bloom read selections from Dickinson's poetry and letters as Emily, with Fleming interjecting as her gigglier sister Lavinia. Bloom's American accent started understated and disappeared altogether, but her performance understatedly delivered Dickinson's battiness and sense of wonder. The readings were divided into sections for each month of the year, with each part of the programme beginning with an account of a musical evening, a neighbour's soirée in January, Jenny Lind in July.

A further complication to Fleming's performance was the dramatic fiction of the evening. Fleming's depiction of Lavinia, though her spoken performance was pretty good as well, wasn't different enough from her singing of Emily's texts. The idea seems to have been that Fleming's vocal intensity would reflect the inner power of the poetry, while Bloom delivered the surface of the text. But a more introspective performer like Dawn Upshaw (or Ian Bostridge) might have integrated the inner and outer forces more effectively.

Helen Yorke provided a sympathetic and quietly virtuoso piano accompaniment.

H.E. Elsom



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com