Friday, August 06, 2021

Jim likes sunsets

Mount Chocorua from Page Hill, 20:07 4 Aug '21

Here in the great northern wilderness of New Hampshire, we have had several nights of spectacular sunsets. This is one of the images. It is unadjusted, apart from lens corrections!

Camera equipment
Canon Mark III EOS 5d
Canon EF28mm f/1.8 USM
Photo details
1/60", 28mm, f/4.0, ISO 100

I call this image "Wild nights", after the poem by Emily Dickinson. 

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

This poem has great significance to me, in large part because of its musical context.  In 1991 we moved from a small town in Maine to a small town in Oregon. The previous two years had not been kind to us both personally and professionally. We had moved rather suddenly from one coast to the other, hearts breaking in all four of us as we said goodbye to friends and drove ourselves and all of our belongings to a new home thousands of miles away. Everything precious to Maureen and me was on that truck.

I was in the second year of an appointment as an associate professor of theoretical chemistry in a small college in Oregon, in wine country, southwest of Portland. My research was off to a good start. I enjoyed my classes, and my new colleagues encouraged me to pursue my interests outside of the sciences. Maureen had just found a position as a dietician at Oregon Health Sciences University. as it was then known. We were emerging from the darkness into new schools and friendships.

I was quite fortunate to join the Portland Symphonic Choir in its 1992-1993 season; Maureen joined the following year. The choir performed regularly with the Oregon Symphony, at the time conducted by James DePreist, nephew of the contralto Marion Anderson. In the usual inexplicable resonance of the cosmos, the maestro and Maureen shared birthdays. Singing with the symphony added a level of richness, achievement,  and personal satisfaction that was a welcome balm on the rough edges of our souls, and the prospect of happiness that had seemed distant only two short years earlier.

The maestro always pointed Marion Anderson out to us. "Aunt Marion" was a presence dressed in white, high in the upper balcony where the sound was best. Jimmie, as he was known to all, relayed her criticisms after each rehearsal.

The first work performed by the choir that season was Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy", with Garrick Ohlsson at the keyboard, the season opener and gala concert. Garrick was a huge man, towering over all of us, kind to all and a delight on stage. The Beethoven is an early musical sketch of what became the fourth movement of the 9th symphony, with its choral setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy".

The second major work as John Adams' setting of three poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, "Harmonium"
"Negative Love" (by Donne)
"Because I could not stop for Death" (by Dickinson)
"Wild Nights" (by Dickinson)

On 15 April 1981, the work was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony and Symphony Chorus, Edo de Waart at the baton. The work requires large forces. This 1992 production was the first performance of the work on the West Coast after the premiere. The composer would be in attendance. Maestro James DePreist would be conducting the orchestra, and only three rehearsals with the orchestra.

There was no segue between the two Dickinson poems; the music leaped from one to another, with several intense orchestral passages. The tempi were fast, the tessitura were very high and fortissimo, and the orchestra was blasting away. And the music itself was challenging. The maestro had a strategy to help keep the chorus anchored to the music: he would raise his left hand and hold it for a full measure; there were three points in the last movement where he did this. 

Each choral rehearsal - there were many - I left work, inhaled dinner, drove to Portland, rehearsed for two and a half hours or more, then drove home, then finished grading and class preparation for the following day, working sometimes till dawn. I was sustained by the beauty of the music and the poetry.

The performances were thrilling. Audiences thundered their approval. The maestro beamed and praised the entire ensemble. The composer was pleased. The maestro said Aunt Marion was satisfied but our diction could be better. Maureen and Greg and Kate came to one performance. 

I would hear again and again in my mind the closing lines,  followed by the soft weeping voice of the brass and the French horns:

Rowing in Eden - | Ah - the Sea!

Might I but moor - tonight - | In thee!

Here is a link to an excerpt from the San Francisco Symphony's recording of the last movement, with commentary by the British conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

Ah - the Sea!

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