Vespers Cantata: Hesperus is Phosphorus by Lewis Spratlan Reviewed – Performed by The Crossing at Park Avenue Christian Church, June 5, 2012

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Lewis Spratlan, Composer

Lewis Spratlan, Composer

Vespers Cantata: Hesperus is Phosphorus
by Lewis Spratlan

Network for New Music
Linda Reichert, artistic director

The Crossing
Donald Nally, conductor

Park Avenue Christian Church
Tuesday, June 5, 1012

Earlier this month an important new work by Lewis Spratlan was premiered under the auspices of the Phildelphia- based contemporary music groups, the Network for New Music and The Crossing, first at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia and a few days later in New York City, at Park Avenue Christian Church, which supports an especially lively music program. Many readers will recognize Mr. Spratlan as the composer of Life is a Dream, an opera based on Calderón de la Barca’s classic play, which has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and received a brilliantly successful premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2010.

Hesperus is Phosphorus, which takes its name from Frege’s famous conundrum, is described as a secular cantata, specifically a secular Vespers service, taking as its point of departure the evening and morning star, Venus, which, coincidentally, was making its way across the Sun as the New York performance, the one I attended, was just beginning, unless the organizers planned it that way. The cantata, an splendidly sturdy and finely wrought construction of music which is deeply rooted in a series of secular texts in verse and prose by a variety of 20th and 21st Century figures in literature and science: Wallace Shawn, Adrienne Rich, Richard Feynman, A.R. Ammons, Wallace Stevens, and David Eagleman among others. (I won’t try to replace the concert notes by the composer and conductor Donald Nally, which are appended at the end of this review) It is only characteristic of our time and place that American composers show a refined, ambitious taste in the poetry they seek out to set, but this is an exceptionally absorbing…and moving collection of work, not least Adrienne Rich’s “Stepping Backward.” Spratlan and Nally have brought together a compelling sequence of personal, fictional, and metaphysical expressions to provide the foundations for the cantata — and these are of a linguistic nature. As much as in any cantata of Bach’s, words form part of the fabric of the composition. (Today, few non-specialists appreciate the originality and quality of Bach’s texts) As I mentioned, the music is vigorously imagined and rigorously composed. In fact Hesperus is Phosphorus would be equally powerful, if the audience lacked the the texts distributed in the program book — a necessity, unfortunately, if one is not sitting in the first few rows of that particular church.

As crucial as the text is in this work, it is only a tribute to Mr. Spratlan’s gifts to say that Hesperus is Phosphorus, as pure music, offers immense treasures in counterpoint, even to the point of elegant, fully developed fugues, choral and concertante writing, and sonorities endlessly stimulating to the ears, intellect and the imagination. Composers, even great ones, often set texts to thinner, less complex textures and harmonies, in order not to detract from the texts’ importance. In this work, Spratlan allowed his music its full scope of expression and thought, focusing it, rather than diluting it, to give each text its proper place in the whole, companioned by music that speaks grammatically in complete sentences and paragraphs. This is not an easy strategy to bring off, but it succeeded magnificently, seemingly through uncompromised labor in the writing. The music and the selection, sensitive to common imagery and themes, worked together to create a common denominator among diverse literary sources. In this case most were of indisputable quality, although I was at a loss to see how the ruminations from pop-science-guru David Eagleman’s Sum could find their way into the mix. Nonetheless, Spratlan’s music ennobled even this into some recognizable shadow of the Greek atomists and Lucretius. A line from the Magnificat and a line from the Doxology were interpolated into Eagleman’s “Search,” and they made a difference.

This was music of a kind that will never lose its relevance, appeal or power. It is as articulate as the best of the texts it carries. It is perfectly proportioned. Not one movement or section is longer than it needs to be. The whole is a gracious setting for the measures of its parts. Contrapuntal passages, especially the fugues, were exquisitely turned. A Stravinskian style of choral exposition — not without the occasional savor of Bernstein — served the prose passages to perfection. I’d perhaps argue with the statement that it is a secular work with only a light touch of the Magnificat, because the style of the choral movements and the fugal sections bring liturgical music vividly to mind, whether it is Stravinsky’s Mass or Bach’s, not to mention the potency of the brief liturgical quotations.

In any case there is no conventional piety here, nor any conventional appeal to the anxiety of disbelief or questioning. The settings concentrate on the wonder of creation, not only in nature, but in human experience, however painful or even sordid it may be. In this Hesperus is Phosphorus is a work a passionate honesty, both as a personal statement and as a document of how an educated, sensitive secularist who is not a professional philosopher or theologian, but is informed about their work, might reflect on death, divinity, and the afterlife as well as transience and loss on this side of the threshold. I personally am not one of those many people who were charmed and impressed by Sum, but the three chapters taken from it provide such an effective background for Wallace Stevens’ “Big Light,” Feynman’s famous quotation on paradox, A. R. Ammons’ “Guide,” the brief excerpt from Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, and Adrienne Rich’s “Stepping Backward,” that it seems indispensable. If Aristophanes, Lucian, and Ben Jonson had their fun with the afterlife, why not Eagleman? His little book, catapulted to fame and fortune by Stephen Fry’s tweet, seems to have raked in a great range of the droppings and shreds that sit in our minds today when we ponder the afterlife without some predefined doctrine or a conviction in some unified imagining to give our thoughts form. In any case, Spratlan’s treatment — for example, his poignant setting of the last sentences of “Egalitaire” and the whole of “Search,” which leads into a magnificent fugue — is musical expression of a high order, and the texts function eloquently within it. Any banality one might detect in “Absence” vanishes behind the color and narrative urgency of the music. In fact, Nally and Spratlan did well in choosing these texts.

Hesperus is Phosphorus is sincere, serious, and seriously constructed. Music like this will never seem conservative or behind the times to audiences who truly listen and have a sufficiently deep grasp of music to resist fads. Mr. Spratlan’s compositions and works in this spirit will always be welcome.

The only frustrating part of the evening lay in the acoustics of Park Avenue Christian Church, a narrow, tallish space, and my inexperience with it. Thinking the sound might be too loud up front, we sat about a third of the way back in the nave, where the sound was both hard and muddy. The acoustical shortcomings were no match for Spratlan’s transparent textures or the precise, agile playing and singing of the chamber group and chorus. The Crossing, which include the composer’s son, are clearly a group of the highest abilities.

Concert Notes
by Lewis Spratlan and Donald Nally

Phosphorus is the morning star, Hesperus the evening star. Or, so the Greeks thought form any centuries until their astronomers concluded that the Babylonians were correct; the morning star is the evening star – a single celestial body, our Venus, seen at dusk and at dawn. Hesperus is Phosphorus.

We come to such conclusions periodically; perception – based on our experiences and limited by the confines of our vantage point – often requires modification as our view widens.For the Greeks, at that moment, this required a doctrinal change, a revised theological landscape,for in the heavens they saw their gods; those whose positions move (our planets) were of a greater deity than the lesser, stationary gods (the stars). Hesperus is Phosphorus; their unity created a new, greater, god.

We live in a world in which perception changes quickly as our knowledge base grows exponentially; it is easy to be confused or lost, drowning in an ever-growing sea of seeming paradoxes; the American physicist Richard Feynman reminds us, “A paradox is not a conflict within reality. It is a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.”Tonight, his words stand as a kind of ‘reality check’ in the midst of a libretto we’ve constructed from contemporary authors which takes us through an undulating journey of humanness – of our perceptions and hopes and disappointments, of unimagined possibilities and limitless imagination, of stark truths and of those ideas that lie beyond our grasp.

The Romans translated Hesperus as Vespers, which has passed down to us in images of peaceful twilight and of evening prayer and serves as the inspiration for a yearlong Vespers series by The Crossing that is the thematic frame for this cantata. Conceived of as a secular work, it nonetheless partakes lightly of Magnificat texts towards the end, as these words of Mary that most characterize Vespers enfold humility and modesty.

The piece falls into two parts. Three “tales of the afterlives” from David Eagleman’sSum articulate this structure by opening it, closing Part I, and closing the entire work. These movements serve as pillars upon which the piece is built, but beyond structure they represent progression: The Afterlife I offers hope of true equality in Heaven; in The Afterlife II God is missing and arguments about his whereabouts explode into war and carnage (“We have ascended and brought the front lines with us”); The Afterlife III entertains a world in which our atoms drift off and combine with those of myriad other beings, animate and inanimate, while retaining markers of ourselves – we expand from the corporeal to the universal.

In Big Light, following The Afterlife I, Wallace Stevens contemplates floods of moonlight under the “westward evening star.” Paradox, in physicist Richard Feynman’s reconsideration, is coupled to Unity, A. R. Ammons’s sermon on the unattainability of unity andThe Absolute. These lead to The Afterlife II and the conclusion of Part I.The Magnificat emerges for the first time in Esurientes, the opening number of Part II.

This unique a cappella movement evokes through its structure the filling of the hungry with good things and the rich “sent empty away.” Falling, the conclusion of Wallace Shawn’s dramatic monologue The Fever, envisions with horror a return to familiar surroundings forever changed.Stepping Backward, Adrienne Rich’s autumnal reflections on an old love affair – noting losses but buoyed by truths uncovered – leads to The Afterlife III and a celebration of our limitless existence as members of the universal community of atoms.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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