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Aspen Choral Society: When the poet’s words are the musician’s muse

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times
ALL |

ASPEN – Christie Smith, a soprano in the Aspen Choral Society, describes a portion of “The Poets Landscape,” a new work by Choral Society director and composer-in-residence Ray Adams, as “this lilting, bouncy, positive, quick” music. The music was composed by Adams to accompany Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers,” and Smith, who is also a teacher of literature and humanities at Colorado Mountain College, says “the music just reflects the words perfectly.”

Those words – hope as a thing “that never stops at all” – don’t seem to be a precise reflection of the poet herself. Dickinson was a worrier, an oddball and a recluse; in her, hope seems barely to have even begun.

“The Poets Landscape,” which premieres at a pair of Aspen Choral Society concerts this weekend – Friday at the United Methodist Church in Glenwood Springs, and on Saturday, April 17 at the Aspen Chapel, both at 7:30 p.m. – features Adams’ setting of poems by Amy Lowell, William Blake and ee cummings as well as Dickinson. All of them, notes Adams, were manic-depressive. It is a condition, now more politely termed “bipolar,” that Adams shares. “So I was drawn to them for that reason,” the composer said.

But Adams seems to have been attracted not only by the emotional condition, but to how it was manifested in the poets’ work. Tormented souls they might have been, but their writing could be lovely, grateful and inspirational. At least it is, for the most part, in the poetry Adams selected for his composition. “The Poets Landscape,” which is written for choir and string quartet, features cummings’ “I Thank You God” and “I Carry Your Heart with Me,” and Blake’s “Ah! Sunflower.” The last of these, Adams said, “is about aspiring to grow, to go where the sunflowers go. It’s a positive piece.”

Adams focused more on the output than the life history of the poets in composing “The Poets Landscape.” The music is, on the whole, pretty. An exception is the music he wrote for “The Pond,” by Amy Lowell. The poem, about coming across a pond covered with moss, rocks, leaves and frogs, is, Smith said, “moody and quirky.” And Adams created music to fit. “It’s dissonant and a little bit wacky. But it’s good to throw it in the mix. Too much consonance created boredom,” Adams said, adding that the images of “The Pond” evoked his own memories of growing up near upstate New York.

This weekend’s concerts open with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1, to be performed by the Choral Society String Quartet – valley residents Daniel Furth on viola and Betsy Furth on cello; Front Range violinist Aaron Lande; and, substituting for Choral Society concertmaster Julian Hallmark, violinist Carlos Elias, who directs the string and orchestra program at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, and is artistic director of the Glenwood Springs-based Symphony in the Valley. For Adams, the piece is noteworthy for being Beethoven’s first composition in the quartet form.

Also on the program is Randall Thompson’s mid-20th century work, “Frostiana.” The piece not only cements the “words and music” theme of the concert – Thompson uses the poetry of Robert Frost as his text – but also emphasizes that poets may, by nature, be tortured souls. Adams says that Frost was reportedly not pleased with “Frostiana” upon its premiere – which does not mean that audiences since then have found it lacking. Adams – who selected four of the seven movements to perform with the Choral Society – finds Thompson’s piece pleasing.

“He was a curmudgeon,” Adams said of Frost. “He was our poet laureate. You’d think that would keep him happy. But no.

“Poets – I don’t know if it’s the stress of putting two words together. For some reason their temperament lends itself to all sorts of abuses. They have more than their share of afflictions.”

Adams collected the poems for his piece while he was in California, helping out his mother and stepfather. He read poetry, and also did a bit of research on the poets themselves. He found it better to focus on the words they left behind, not the lives they led.

“When you got out the other books, when you stop reading the poetry and start reading about their lives, that’s when you understand them,” he said.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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