Chamber Choir enhances poetry’s beauty with performance

The sound of the choir singing 19th- and 20th-century poetry filled the octagonal space of the WCMA Rotunda last Sunday. Photo courtesy of The Williams College Museum of Art.
The sound of the choir singing 19th- and 20th-century poetry filled the octagonal space of the WCMA Rotunda last Sunday. Photo courtesy of The Williams College Museum of Art.

Something you don’t expect to find in the middle of an art museum: a choir. Something you don’t expect to hear from a choir: 19th- and 20th-century American poetry.

And yet it was exactly this anomalous amalgamation that could be found in the Rotunda of the Williams College Museum of Art this past Sunday, when the Williams Chamber Choir, under the direction of Lyell B. Clay Arist in Residence Brad Wells, put on a concert that primarily featured American composers’ settings of the work of American poets.

It sounds odd, perhaps. But any concern about the incongruity of such a performance vanished with the first note the choir sang. The concert opened with Donald Grantham’s setting of a poem by Emily Dickinson. “This is my letter to the world,” the choir sang, the sound filling the octagonal space of the room, reaching all the way up to its high ceilings, reflecting against the Rotunda’s unvarnished white walls. I’d wondered, before the performance began, if setting her words to song would somehow dilute Dickinson, render her intricate intimations somehow vulgar, overdone. But the opposite occurred. The choir deepened the poetry, somehow, let it wash over those of us in the audience, so that we were steeped in the lyric richness of the words.

In the poems the choir performed, the music was carefully harmonized with literal meaning. The second Dickinson poem that was sung, a work titled, “Let down the bars, O Death” and composed by Samuel Barber, built to a climax, growing great and expansive in a way that seems to suggest a sort of march of death, before softening, becoming gentler, as it reached its conclusion. “Too tender, to be told,” the choir sang, and then again, in delicate repetition, sang again: “Too tender, to be told.” The dull 4 p.m. light streamed softly through a paned window, the air thick with music, and I knew, listening, that something very beautiful was happening here, in the octagonal contours of the room, the voices reverberating in tune with Dickinson and not against her.

The choir’s making of the works of American poets into music enhanced the beauty of these writers’ sentences, adding depth and chordal color to each individual word. A line might be sung in harmony – putting multiple “readings” together – or in unison, creating a powerful feeling of convergence. After performing three settings of Dickinson’s poetry, the choir moved onto Gertrude Stein. Stein’s frequent use of repetition – the poem performed on Sunday consisted predominantly of the phrases “Let her be” and “Let her try” – lent itself quite well to music. The setting by Judd Greenstein ’01 allowed the chamber choir to muse and almost ruminate upon the ideas and images at work in Stein’s poetry, emphasizing the reprisals that a reader’s eye, confronted with a page filled with seemingly endless repetitions of the same few words, might be inclined to slide over.

Poetic musing was also central in the third set, which consisted of three arrangements of the writings of Walt Whitman, composed by William Schuman and conducted by choir member Daniel Potter ’16. “The Last Invocation” and “Darest Thou Now O Soul” were rendered quite lovely in vocalized form, with the dynamics and diction utilized by the singers granting a distinct sort of reading to Whitman’s words. The third composition was perhaps the most haunting, meditating upon a single quatrain from Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” about a kind of death that is “lovely” and “soothing” – or, as the sopranos sang – “So – oo – oo – oo –thing.” The sounds soared upward, echoing. It was magnificent, arresting.

And so while the writers and composers whose works were performed on Sunday deserve some degree of credit for the magic of the performance, of course, it was the 16 voices of the Williams Chamber Choir who perhaps most truly brought written word and musical mark to life. The sound of the group was, to put it succinctly, simply marvelous. There did not appear, to my untrained ear at least, to be a single off-key note. The harmonies were always beautiful, the sound was always full, whether it was very loud or very soft and the last notes of each piece always floated impeccably upwards into the suddenly empty air. This was particularly clear in the final piece that the group performed, Arvo Pärt’s, “Dopo la vittoria.” A change from the theme of the rest of the concert, this piece, composed by an Estonian and written in Italian, was incomprehensible, to me, at least on the level of linguistic meaning. And yet it was no less captivating, no less lovely, than all the compositions that had come before it.

Sunday’s performance – a series of songs sung amidst paintings and statuesque columns, the pages of some of America’s most preeminent poets, rendered into notes – worked because it was beautiful. It also worked because it was unusual, interesting and sometimes even a little ironic. In one of the pieces in the Whitman set, the group sang the poet’s request, “Let me glide noiselessly forth,” so turning silence into sound, notation into a kind of noise.

Poetry, after all, is quiet, noiseless. Sometimes. But, as was made quite vocal on Sunday, it doesn’t have to be.

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