By Peter Jacobi
The words of Walt Whitman say: “Behold the sea itself! And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships: See! where their white sails, bellying in the wind, sparkle the green and blue! See! thy steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port! See! dusky and undulating, their long pennants of smoke!”
Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams turned to those words for the beginning of his “A Sea Symphony,” an hour-long and compelling work you’ll be able to experience Wednesday evening in the Musical Arts Center, as performed by the Indiana University Oratorio Chorus and Concert Orchestra, led by conductor Betsy Burleigh. Vaughan Williams labored on the symphony for more than six years, and it was he who conducted its premiere at the Leeds Festival in 1910. This was the Brit’s Symphony Number 1, his first, a project that should have been well beyond his means to create, considering he was still in the formative years of his compositional skills.
But Vaughan Williams dreamed big. It was his desire to rechristen the rich tradition of British choral writing, which he deemed in decline. It was also a way of honoring Walt Whitman, whose poetry he greatly admired. The texts chosen come from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and “Passage to India.” They obviously inspired him for what, in total, in words and music is a spiritual journey. Vaughan Williams used the vastness and mysteries of the sea as metaphor for the human desire, no matter how difficult, to take journeys of self-discovery.
While most other so-called choral symphonies, such as the Beethoven Ninth, limit choral elements to a single movement, “A Sea Symphony” is a true choral symphony, in that it unites chorus and orchestra from start to finish.
Conductor Burleigh explained why she chose “A Sea Symphony” as this season’s big choral work: “I love it and think it’s not performed often enough. Vaughan Williams paints Whitman’s text beautifully, which deals with the largest of concepts. The sea becomes a metaphor for the unanimity of mankind, our place in the universe and in time, the exhilaration of the now and our journey, the journey of the soul into the unknown. As Hubert Parry [British composer and Vaughan Williams’ contemporary] said of the work, ‘This is big stuff, with some impertinences.’ And somehow, this seems perfect for students, of all ages.”
Burleigh said the symphony “has its technical challenges. The third movement, for instance, although the shortest, demands a lot in terms of precision and ensemble. And the balances are tough to get right. This was his first symphony, and he had recently studied in France with Ravel; the orchestration is lush but thick. I also think the fact that it is a choral symphony, a hybrid genre, makes it hard for people to know quite what to do with it or when to program it.”
Asked what difficulties she faced during the preparation period, Burleigh said: “No matter what the repertoire, I think the greatest challenge and the ultimate goal is to unite everyone in expression. That includes the technical unanimity of rhythm and intonation and such, but it also applies to the larger notion of commitment to what the particular music is trying to say. I made it a point to give all the orchestra members a copy of the poetry so they could have a complete picture from the very beginning of what we were trying to do.
“My aspiration for any concert,” Burleigh continued, “is for it to be a moving experience for the listener, to somehow touch the spirit. I suggest that the audience member reads the poetry and listens for the kaleidoscopic way Vaughan Williams sets it. You’ll hear everything from folk songs and sea chanties to Elgarian pomp, to hints of Ravel, even Wagner, and back to English hymn melodies. The musical ideas are as wide-ranging as the poetry, and they are quite effective.”
Burleigh used the pronoun “we” instead of “you” in addressing what the listener should, at the end of the concert, walk away with. “I do mean ‘we,’” she noted. “Ideally, there’s a circular energy that flows to and from the stage. In this particular concert, I hope we’ll all be transported a little closer to that magical, metaphysical realm invoked by Whitman’s words and Vaughan Williams’ music.”
An event awaits us on Wednesday. I, for one, want to feel that circular energy conductor Burleigh spoke of. Will I see you there?
And this afternoon…
As you read this, about 25 Indiana University Jacobs School singers are heading to Indianapolis, to the Hilbert Circle Theater, to perform. They’re among the 35 singers who signed up to compete in the 63rd annual Metropolitan Opera National Council Indiana District Auditions.
Those district auditions used to be here on campus, in the Musical Arts Center. Last year, they were moved to Indianapolis, this to provide a more central location for the competitors. At least, that’s the official reason for the move. An alternative theory making the rounds is that our singers, those from IU, might have gained unfair benefit from singing in a familiar environment.
Whatever the reason, the auditions are in Indianapolis. So, if you want to attend, head up there (45 Monument Circle). The singing starts at 1. And with 35 candidates scheduled to perform, you’ll get a whole lot of opera to enjoy. Several of the 35 contestants will be invited to the second of four steps in the competition, the Central Region auditions in Chicago on Nov. 22.
This afternoon’s event is free.
Contact Peter Jacobi at email@example.com.
If you go
WHAT AND WHO: Choral conductor Betsy Burleigh leads the IU Oratorio Chorus and Concert Orchestra in a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ intriguing and grand Symphony No. 1, called “A Sea Symphony.” The music is set to poems of Walt Whitman.
WHEN: Wednesday evening at 8.
WHERE: Musical Arts Center on the Indiana University Bloomington campus.
© Herald Times 2015