New Bern's historical district is usually a destination for those interested in America's past. On Saturday, September 17, however, the town attracted fewer people curious about colonial life than those eager to hear the new music of Elena Ruehr (b.1963), Composer-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Commissioned by the Coastal Carolina Chamber Music Festival and premiered at its final concert, Ruehr's work, titled exodus [sic], is based on the poetry of North Carolina native Sam Ragan (1915-96), who was appointed the state's Poet Laureate in 1982.
Before the concert, Ruehr discussed her piece with the audience, mentioning that the initial plan was for the texts to be recited but that after reading Ragan's verse, she felt the words demanded to be sung. Wanting to offer a sense of the poet's entire body of work, she chose four short poems to set to music: "A Journey in Limbo," "The Day the Hawk Came," "Knowledge" and "A Moment is Marked." Given Ruehr's university affiliation, one might have expected a computer-based work created from complex algorithms; instead, exodus is intensely human. Scored for soprano, violin, viola, cello, and harp, the piece presents musical ideas derived directly from the poetry itself. For example, one line – "Of wanting something, needing something" – is the source for a rhythm that pervades the second half of the work.
As can be inferred from the title, exodus explores the subject of journey, both physical and existential. As the work progresses, the listener begins to understand that rhythm and harmony share a mutual function, pressing the poems towards their most important words where sometimes there is tension, sometimes release. During the pre-concert talk, Ruehr even commented that the cello part occasionally acts as a drum, an indication of how unified in purpose notes and pulse are in this music.
Central to the cycle (and the origin of the title) is the third section, "Knowledge," which shifts palpably in subject matter. The first two poems illustrate Ragan's mastery of the personal vignette: travel delayed by rain, and witness to a hawk's attack on a young fowl. The third poem, however, is entirely different:
They came out of the desert
And the sand was in their hair
Their eyes, their skin-and
There was something else,
Something that would be with them
All the days of their lives.
And they would not give it a name,
Except that it had to do
With doing without,
Of wanting something, needing
And knowing it was not there,
Knowing too they must go on,
Against the wind, the sand, the sun,
The everything, the nothing,
Going on and on and on.*
At first I found the swerve to such imagery disorienting, and I questioned Ruehr's belief that this poem could be grouped with the others cohesively. In the first, second, and final poems, Ragan transforms seemingly ordinary scenes into poignant works of art. "Knowledge," on the other hand, contains some heavy philosophical commentary. I'm still not entirely convinced that the unexpected change in the literary tone does not overwhelm, but Ruehr's comments about this section have made me reconsider its relationship to the whole, and are worth repeating here: "I thought a lot about the change to the third person in 'Knowledge.' It seemed to me that there was a constant awareness in Ragan's poetry of how a very specific personal experience can be turned into a metaphor for more generic, shared human events.... To me, this set [of songs] was a story told in its most generic sense in 'Knowledge,' while the other poems flesh the story out and make it more personal." Within this section, an ostinato motive of alternating 7/8 and 8/8 meter ("Of wanting something, needing something") permeates the viola and cello parts. As the singer describes the terrible scene of emerging from the desert, the incessant rhythm gives the listener a feeling of underlying infinity, symbolic, perhaps, of a universe whose momentum remains unaffected by human events.
Ruehr insightfully hears the third-person narrator return at the very end of the last poem, at the lines, "A moment is marked / In the movement of time." Observing Ragan's shift in perspective, Ruehr ends the cycle with a large-scale crescendo over the final fifteen bars of the work, putting the voice through some extraordinary acrobatics. When asked about the decision to end the cycle so forcefully, Ruehr commented:
It seemed to me that there was a dramatic sense in the last line that needed to be darker and, frankly, a little frightening. There are really two endings in this piece, the first personal and the second generic. Although the personal story is resolved at the end ("I drive beyond the curve in the road"), the larger sense of generic story is left in conflict. The virtuosic coda of Part IV is really the ending of "Knowledge." I was hoping for a sense of larger [and] more formal declamation. The singer in the last line of "A Moment is Marked" is not telling her personal story but existing in a different voice, once again in the third person, as "speaker for the world."
Catherine French, violin, Amadi Hummings, viola, Jennifer Lucht, cello, and Anna Reinersman, harp, played with technical skill and powerful expression throughout exodus and clearly had devoted themselves to giving the work a memorable premiere. Special praise must be given to soprano Eve Gigliotti, who sang a difficult part very adeptly; Ruehr explores the full range of the voice (two octaves in the final song), and often colors the line with difficult leaps and exotic ornamentation. From time to time, Gigliotti's rich voice overshadowed some interesting material in the strings, but this effect may have been exacerbated by the highly resonant hall of the First Baptist Church.
Hearing new music is always a thrill, especially when the piece is of Ruehr's quality. Her work demonstrates how rich contemporary repertoire can be and how important it is to expose audiences to the sounds of the new century. Those who are interested in listening to some of her other compositions online should visit http://www.elenaruehr.com/ [inactive 1/07].
Reinersman and Lucht, Artistic and Associate Directors of the CCCMF, respectively, should be cheered for commissioning a new work for the festival each year, yet the premiere of exodus was just one section of this final program. Also heard the same evening were four songs by Brahms, which Gigliotti performed too much like Italian arias for my taste, forgetting that in German Lieder the piano is just as important as the voice. Pianist Melvin Chen, however, played with a very refined understanding. Chen returned for the final piece of the evening, Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, along with French, Hummings, and Lucht. Once again, the hall's acoustics sometimes obscured rapid passages in the second and last movements, but the lyrical third movement was a model of expressive string playing. The audience offered tremendous applause following the final chords, giving a well-earned ovation to the ensemble's superb performance.
Other events during the festival included a sold-out concert of Mozart, a night of music and dance at the Masonic Temple with original choreography by Jacqulyn Buglisi, an evening of Spanish compositions, a noon concert held the day hurricane Ophelia arrived that not even the weather could cause to be canceled, two visits to elementary schools and a masterclass with Ruehr at ECU. In 2006, the festival will celebrate its fourth year in existence and will commission a new work from Wake Forest University composer Dan Locklair. Without a doubt, chamber music thrives in New Bern each September!
*The poem has been reprinted here from the program notes. See Collected Poems of Sam Ragan, Laurinburg, NC: St. Andrews Press, 1990.