Chicago Chamber Musicians give voice to Lieberson premiere

Mon Sep 28, 2009 at 10:13 am

By Bryant Manning

Peter Lieberson’s The Coming of Light was performed in its world premiere by the Chicago Chamber Musicians Sunday at Unity Temple in Oak Park.

The Chicago Chamber Musicians understand that a Frank Lloyd Wright anniversary isn’t your everyday occasion—especially in Oak Park—so they called on the help of another American master to commemorate the centennial of the architect’s glorious Unity Temple.

Composer Peter Lieberson was commissioned to write The Coming of Light, a six-part song cycle that explores themes of love and impermanence. Lieberson’s personal life certainly informs these areas with authority—the tragic loss of his wife, legendary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, to cancer in 2006 and now his own strenuous bout with lymphoma. The aching lyrical prowess of his Grawemeyer-winning Neruda Songs augured well for a song cycle to be performed in a space now wrestling with the fate of its own impermanence.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated Wright’s Unity Temple as one of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America” and they aren’t exaggerating. The brilliant interior of this four-tiered cubic structure has been scarred by areas of exposed plywood desperately in need of a coat of paint and plaster. Called one of the most “democratic spaces” in the U.S., the temple’s boxy intimacy is highly desirable for chamber music even while the faded windows and woodwork await costly restoration.

On Sunday evening, the chamber musicians offered rarefied sensitivity to dynamics in this superb world premiere. Lieberson’s long-standing affinity for musical theater comes through in these six songs set to poetry by Shakespeare, John Ashbery and Mark Strand. The stanzas are set fluidly in motion with a minimalist’s energy even when they can be generally characterized as unsettlingly plaintive.

Baritone John Michael Moore sang with fortitude and grace, yielding the right amount of playfulness when called for.  He fleshed out a grave beauty in the fourth song, set to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 109 (“O, Never say that I was false of heart”), that was surely the cycle’s vertex. There’s no reason more prominent American baritones like Thomas Hampson or Nathan Gunn shouldn’t have this cycle on their radar in the future. The composer was in attendance and received a frenetic round of applause.

Samuel Barber’s song Dover Beach  (1931) was a natural vehicle for Moore’s richly anguished vocals, even though it was impossible not to be happily distracted by the high level of string playing here, particularly Stephen Balderston’s sturdy cello phrasing. Barber himself took a lot of pride in this early work even at the end of his life, and it was easy to hear why with such resourceful advocacy.

Beethoven’s tightly woven Op. 18 string quartets show a true mastery of the Haydn style, with the first in F Major, its touchstone. The opening movement was agile and muscular while the titanic Adagio was given theatrical command. The drama pushed on electrically to the final two allegros, led by CCM’s artistic director and first violin Joseph Genualdi. There were some bloopers between violinist Jasmine Lin and Genualdi who appeared to have mistakenly swapped sheet music and suffered from some lighting mishaps, all of which made their unflinching playing all the more impressive. The quartet as a whole couldn’t have paid a better tribute to Beethoven’s pre-Eroica Classical spirit.

The temple’s soft-edged acoustics provided a cozy nest for Domenico Cimarosa’s glowing Quartetto No. 6 in A Minor. Discovered only 15 years ago and not published until 2001, this is a work of modest virtues, namely a melodious, bel canto oboe line rendered expressively by Michael Henoch over no-frills accompaniment. To paraphrase Art Garfunkel’s own salute to the iconic architect, there were few in the hall who would’ve objected to hearing these musicians “harmonize ’til dawn.” And they’ll be able to soon from the comfort of home, as WFMT was on the scene to broadcast this performance at a later date.

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