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The Poets Speak

New York
Judith and Arthur Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
03/06/2009 -  
Lee Hyla: Howl! (Written and spoken on tape by Allen Ginsberg)
Josef Haydn: The Seven Last Words of Christ (With poetry written for the music by Mark Strand)

Brentano String Quartet: Mark Steinberg, Serena Canin (Violins), Misha Amory (Viola), Nina Lee (Cello), Mark Strand (Reader)

The Brentano String Quartet (© Peter Schaaf)

Any magazine editor recognizes good writers, when becoming too close to their subject, can lose their perspective and oft overplay their talent. Perhaps this happened to Josef Haydn, whose creativity, joy, emotion, balance, delight and his endless flurry of emotions may have deserted him when commissioned by a Spanish church to write music for the final hours of Jesus. Haydn was a reverent believer in the Roman Catholic Church, but his music, like that of Mozart, partook of what he felt was the Divine Gift of the Lord. Even in their music for the Church—masses, oratorios, sacred songs—Mozart and Haydn relished the radiance bestowed upon them, communicating this gift to their listeners.

The Last Words of Christ, though, was too close and too tragic an event for Haydn to produce objectively. His near-hour-long movements for string quartet (and later, orchestra and chorus), can be tedious, wearying, over-long and frankly, as any magazine editor would tell any writer, too personal for publication.

This is certainly not the attitude of Brentano String Quartet First Violinist Michael Sternberg, who confessed, in a very eloquent note, that the Haydn is “my most beloved piece of music……both revelatory and humbling." Perhaps realizing that the work needed something more than eight movements labeled “Largo”, “Grave”, “Adagio”, “Lento” etc, the Brentano String Quartet commissioned one of America’s most distinguished poets, Mark Strand, to write seven “secular” poems about the last words of Christ. Even more impressive, it was premiered in a chapel, the famed Rothko Chapel, in Houston, where it obviously made a very impressive effect.

Admittedly, too, even in Zankel Hall, Mr. Strand had an eloquence (and brevity) which was more welcoming than the unvarying longish music. Mr. Strand wove effortlessly the seven words (actually sentences) into hexametric poems of between 12-16 lines. Yes, the moods of the poetry were somber, but all of them had an essential visual character which was more effective than the music. One example from the Sixth section:

“”It is finished,’ he said. You could hear him say it, / the words almost a whisper, then not even that, /but an echo so faint it seemed no longer to come/from him, but from elsewhere….”

Even more impressive was Mr. Strand’s reading itself. Originally from Maritime Canada, but living in New York, Mr. Strand has a vocal clarity, which is quietly resonant, a tone allowing words to speak for themselves with neither over-emphasis nor self-conscious quietude. With all my love for Papa Haydn, I will remember these words more than the music.

Superficially, the opening piece, Lee Hyla’s Howl! to the iconic poem read by the late Allen Ginsberg on tape, were the opposite of Strand and Haydn. But not really. Both poems were concentrated, compact, both dealt with vision and despair, the tragedy of a universe and the adoration of its every object. (Though obviously the difference between Mr. Strand’s “sky filled with the odor of lilac” and Mr. Ginsberg’s” invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!” are rather different.)

The problem was that Mr. Ginsberg’s taped reading is so packed with images, objects, repetitions and the rap-rap-rapping of kaleidoscopic evocations that the words are music by themselves.

Mr. Hyla, I suppose did a good job in depicting his own emotions to the poem—and the always superb Brentano obviously gave it their all—but one was too glued to the Ginsberg proclamations and associations to give the music more than passing thought as background dissonance.

Harry Rolnick



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