A two-week NCSU residency for Haitian-American composer, violinist, author, director, producer, teacher, and inspirer Daniel Bernard Roumain culminated in the university’s Stewart Theatre with the first local performance of Darwin’s Meditation for the People of Lincoln, a multimedia theatrical event with music, given without appreciable pauses between its three acts. The 110-minute work (as given on this occasion) is derived from writings – letters, mostly – by Darwin and Lincoln, who were born on the same day, within hours of each other, and from other sources, including Barak Obama, Randall Robinson, the remarkable Haitian vocalist Emeline Michel, whose singing figured extensively in the performance, Roumain himself, and Daniel Beaty, whose “pocket play” The Voice forms the textual basis of Darwin’s Meditation….
Roumain’s music is augmented with vocal works by Michel and Adrian Legagneur, by additional music by pianist Wynne Bennett, whose presence and performances significantly enhanced the artistic success of the evening, and by John Yaffé, who also prepared the score and parts, and – finally – by the inclusion of part of the Haitian National Anthem (“La Dessalinienne”). The narrator was DJ Mendel, the video design (text projections, mostly, with occasional animations, shown over various colors on a large screen at the back of the stage) was by Yuki Nakajima, the producer was Roka Iino, and the Production Manager was Annie Burns. NCSU Center Stage coordinated and presented the project, with support from many of the usual arts funders hereabouts plus Hunter Elementary School (where Roumain spent time with around 1,200 students – the residency also involved Enloe High School) and Meet the Composer.
The piece is described as “a quartet concerto,” the soloists being DBR, whose six-string electric (or, more properly, amplified) violin was one of the work’s more prominent and eloquent voices, vocalist Michel, identified as “The Joni Mitchell of Haiti” and consistently living up to (and at times exceeding) that advance billing, actor Mendel, whose superb timing, diction, projection, and characterizations were often of musical merit, though he sang not one note, and Bennett, who alternated between two keyboards, generally transforming percussive instruments (which pianos are, for their notes are struck) into purveyors of intense lyricism. The Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra served as the musical base, around and above which the soloists soared. The conductor was Randolph Foy, of the NCSU Music Department, in what was surely his largest single undertaking here.
Everybody was amplified, but none was excessively boosted; the electronics extended to the RCCO, which consisted of strings plus a wind quintet minus the bassoon and a trumpet and trombone. The sound system was excellent, but there was a certain patina on the whole evening, one that seemed to level the dynamics to a certain extent, causing what were presumably meant to be soft passages to emerge mezzo-forte or better. This must have been the composer's intent, but it would be interesting to hear the piece – or at least part of it – without electronic enhancement. DBR’s own assisting artists were drummer Kenny Grohowski, who was warmly applauded for his stellar solo work, and electric bassist Jim Roberson.
Darwin’s Meditation… centers on the parallels between the lives and views of the scientist and our great President. But is it a play with music, or a musical play, or music with narration – or a bit of all three, a Gesamtkunstwerk, as it were, but without significant Leitmotiven? To each his (or her) own. To these ears, the musical sections worked exceptionally well as adjuncts to the drama, such as it was, much as the best incidental music supports and enhances the work of our great stage creators. Setting Lincoln – and, clearly, Darwin, too – is a challenge, as many composers have come to realize. DBR has done the job admirably, producing mostly tonal music that is readily grasped, music that enhances emotion and mood conveyed by the texts, music that admirably incorporates the compositions of the brilliant singer, giving the impression that the score is all of a piece. In this regard, its “international” flavors suggest, to a limited extent, the powerful Orion, of Philip Glass; and in addition there is more than a touch of minimalism in the DBR score, for there is a lot of repetition (and also of fragments of the text…). Finally, the music does not appear at first hearing to be terribly demanding for the performers – there seemed to be lots of unison sections and plenty of perhaps tedious-to-play string passages beneath the more virtuosic solo sections DBR himself realized from time to time.
There can be no question that this is a major work. It is surely – as conductor Foy said at the pre-concert discussion – full of things that one does not, can not take in the first time around, so it is a work that would repay repeated listening. It is hard to guess how well it would work as a stand-alone musical piece, divorced from the projections, the dramatic lighting (by Matthew Richards), and the astonishment and delight DBR himself brings to his stage shows by dint of his infectious enthusiasm; my initial impression is that the music and all the stage business need each other, much as is the case in John Adams’ A Flowering Tree. On the other hand, many of us listen to lots of broadcasts and recordings of the musical sides of stage works and derive great pleasure from them,
In any event, this was a triumph for all concerned. The house was nearly full. There were lots of young people present. It was “far out” for the generally somewhat staid RCCO artists – good for them for doing it! – but they all seemed to have a wonderful time. Maestro Foy was unflappably and splendidly in control from start to finish. The soloists – the actor, the singer, DBR himself – could hardly have been better. The crowd whooped and cheered and stood and applauded at the end. For heaven’s sake, here was a WHOLE EVENING of NEW MUSIC by a LIVING COMPOSER that elicited (as far as I could tell) not a single moan or groan. And when it was all over, there was cake and punch and lots of animated discussion in the lobby. The bottom line: that DBR fellow must be doing a whole lot of something right.
For reviews of previous local performances involving DBR, see the following:
Foy And RCCO Fine Partners For Roumain, by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2003/april/FoyandRCCO.htmlHip-Hop Studies and Etudes by Karen Moorman: http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/022008/DBR.html
Duke Performances: Bill T. Jones, by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://www.cvnc.org/reviews/2008/032008/Jones.html
PS Why Haiti? In addition to DBR’s own heritage, Lincoln’s barber was Haitian – and an artist, too. If DBR sees fit to develop a symphony based on this stage work, it would not be amiss to have one movement named “Darwin,” another, “Lincoln,” and the third, drawing together the threads of the previous two, “Billy the Barber” or perhaps simply “Haiti.”
Note: The Raleigh Civic Symphony Association's next concert will be November 15, in the same venue. See our calendar for details.