Gelbwasser and Keller perform Dickinson Song Recital

Entry begun Friday, February 27, 8:30 am

Entering Greaves Concert Hall after a quick walk through the frigid air, we saw the long rows of seats on stage already filling with people.

audience gathers

Kimberly and Ingrid were waiting in the wings, eager to perform the music.  Ingrid still had a warm coat on, Kimberly was feeling better than the day before, and when Kurt arrived we confirmed the order in which he and I would be making our opening remarks.  While we were chatting in the wings, people kept streaming in.  Jonathan Eaton was now setting up two new rows of chairs that filled all the space on the stage.  By the time Kurt and I walked out to begin the program, we had first-row, far-right seats because those were the only seats left.

The view from the first-row, far-right seats

The view from the first-row, far-right seats

Kurt welcomed the crowd by discussing the appeal of Dickinson’s poetry for contemporary composers.  He spoke of his process in composing the three works he had hoped to hear performed tonight.  For him, the concision of Dickinson’s poetry and the expansiveness of her thought are just what a composer needs to find his own voice in response to her work.  Kurt regretted that there had not been sufficient time to fully rehearse his three new pieces for the concert tonight, but he was hopeful that they would have their premiere in April.

Kurt Sander opening the program by discussing his own compositions inspired by Dickinson poems

Kurt Sander opening the program by discussing his own compositions inspired by Dickinson poems

I began my remarks by quickly summarizing how tonight’s concert related to the rest of the Dickinson Arts Fest at NKU this weekend.   I then mentioned how the idea of this concert began when I met Ingrid after a concert she played last April; how she had recommended Kimberly, a soprano who would be joining our Music faculty this Fall while Ingrid was moving to Oregon; and how the Music Department had sponsored Ingrid’s return for this very special concert tonight.  I then introduced John Campbell, who gave us a quick overview of Dickinson’s life and legacy as illustrated in the ten panels he had designed and painted before assembling the two screens between which Kimberly and Ingrid would be performing.

Screen to the right as audience is getting settled

Screen to the right as audience is getting settled

As a brief introduction to the music we would be hearing, I mentioned Aaron Copland’s pioneering role in composing his twelve Dickinson songs in 1951, before Dickinson was yet recognized as a major American author.   And I explained that Jake Heggie had composed Newer Every Day, his five most recent Dickinson songs, last summer for the seventieth birthday concert of soprano Kiri Te Kanawa at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, where Heggie had accompanied her at the piano.   In November Heggie had visited NKU to coach Kimberly in these five new songs, and I concluded my remarks by reading an email he had recently sent about that session with her.  When I sat down to hear the concert, I had an excellent view of Kimberly, but was unable to see Ingrid behind the piano.

kimberly on statge

Kimberly ready to perform

You don’t hear all twelve Copland songs performed in person very often.  Kimberly and Ingrid’s performance was a unforgettable treat, from the pianistic phrase that introduces “Nature, the gentlest mother is” to the last words of “Because I would not stop for death”–in which the speaker “first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity.”  Ingrid is extremely vivid and expressive as a pianist while exquisitely attuned to the phrasing, inflection, and rhythms of the singer she is accompanying.   This song cycle requires equal partners for the music to be fully realized, and we had them tonight.

Kimberly and Ingrid at dinner after concert

Kimberly and Ingrid at dinner after concert

Last night Kimberly gave me a copy of the CD Jonathan Eaton made of the concert, and I am going to listen to it now before continuing with this entry.  Before doing this, I want to say that my one strongest impression after hearing the concert in person is best expressed in the Dickinson poem that immediately follows “Of all the Sounds dispatched abroad” in Johnson’s edition of the Complete Poems. The poem is “There came a Day at Summer’s full” (J 322).  The phrase that came to mind on the way home from the concert: “As if no soul the solstice passed.”  I had listened to recordings of all the Copland songs many times after I began to teach my course in Dickinson and the Arts, but to hear them performed by Kimberly and Ingrid only a few feet away from where I was sitting, on a full stage framed by John Campbell’s Emily Dickinson screens, was something entirely different.

kimberly dickinson 1

“Crystalline” is the marking Copland gave to the piano entrance of the first song, “Nature, the gentlest mother” (J 790), and that is what Ingrid’s playing was throughout the evening.  Together, they took a very deliberate tempo throughout this song, but when Kimberly reached the phrase “When all the children sleep,” our collective breath stopped.

We were swept out of our trance by the rushing introduction to “There came a wind like a bugle” (J 1593), nature’s tumult in this song leading to Kimberly’s emphatic delivery of Dickinson’s astonished closing lines: “How much can come / And much can go, / And yet abide the World.”

When Kimberly hit the first emphatic high note on “loud” in the third song, “Why do they shut me out of heaven?” (J 248), we knew she had her full voice back after being ill earlier this week.  Then came the yearning tenderness of “Wouldn’t the angels try me / Just once more,” the piano, deliberate, letting every note breathe.  Again, audience and performers were one.

emma rose and andrew

I love the deliberate pace at which Kimberly took the opening lines of the fourth song, “The world feels dusty, / When we stop to die” (J 715), Ingrid’s piano providing the warmth and tenderness behind this startling statement.  When Kimberly sang “Mine be the ministry / When thy thirst comes,” Ingrid’s piano line gently spread the “dews” of this spiritual “balm.”

“Heart, we will forget him” (J 47) is probably the best known of the twelve songs.  Kimberly’s voice took us seamlessly from the yearning of the opening “Heart” to the intensity of a high E natural on “I will forget the light,” to the heart-throbbing emotion of “I may remember him” on a sustained, pulsating E-flat.

The sixth song, “Dear March, come in!” (J 1320), shows the collaborative virtuosity of these two artists in an unforgettable way.  The poem itself is delightfully fresh and flexible in its contrast of March and April, but in the performance the piano itself became the voice of March, brilliant and gusty, in full dialog with the welcoming soprano voice.

Ingrid’s vigorous right hand an equal partner to Kimberly’s voice

Ingrid’s vigorous right hand, an equal partner to Kimberly’s voice

The proclamatory opening notes of the seventh song, “Sleep is supposed to be” (J 13), hold promise of some special message.  Kimberly quietly answers in the calm, searching melody of “Sleep is supped to be” and “Morning is supposed to be.” This makes all the more striking the spiritual revelation breaking forth on “That is the break of day,” rising to a double forte on the concluding E natural fermata.

In “When they come back, if blossoms do” (J 1080), the flow of the piano below the melody makes you feel blossoms are opening all around you.  All of the doubt as to whether we can ever return to the experience of joy felt long ago turns hopeful with “If I am there, / I take back all I say,” Kimberly’s soulful fermata on “There,” another high E natural, holding that joy.

The relentless piano sets the tone of the next song, “I felt a funeral in my brain” (J 280), whose “thudding” pulsation Copland instructs the pianist to “exaggerate” even further.  Ingrid boldly follows the composer’s contrast between the “bell-like” and the “thud-like” until Kimberly is left to sing, in a disbembodied, halting voice: “And I and silence, some strange race / Wrecked, solitary, here.”

kimberly singing

In the tenth song, “I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes” (J 183), the gently flowing introduction picks up in intensity and volume, but it was the quietest line in the voice, punctuated by off-beats in the piano, that captured the full mystery of the experience as Kimberly sang, “Yet held my breath the while.”

We speed up considerably, and change gears often,” in “Going to Heaven!” (J. 79).  Kimberly’s voice was fully responsive to the humorous doubts expressed by the poem, but also to the faith of the loved ones the speaker had “left in the ground.”  Her sustainted high F on the third “Heaven!” at the beginning of the song showed she was still in full voice.  So did the low, long, unmoving E natural on which the poem ends, again with the loved ones “in the ground.”

The last song, “The Chariot” (J 712), is marked “with quiet grace,” and Kimberly’s singing and Ingrid’s playing sustained that spirit throughout.  When “the carriage held but just ourselves, and Immortality,” Kimberly, like Dickinson, gives no special inflection to “Immortality,” as if its presence was simply to be expected or quietly accepted.  Their united performance of the rest of the song extends this feeling of being in another world, in which all that ails us is past, “Eternity” having been our natural destination.

audience left

Audience ready to hear the next set of songs

When Jake Heggie sent an email recalling his November coaching session with Kimberly, he also responded to my question as to whether there had as yet been any other performance of his five new songs since he and Te Kanawa had premiered them in Chicago.  Here is what he wrote:  “As far as I know, there hasn’t been a performance of the complete cycle since the premiere—so Kimberly goes right after Kiri! I can tell you that I was delighted and moved by my session with Kimberly—because she was already deeply invested in the poetry. She had her own feelings about the poems—and she brought those feelings to my score to further illuminate the songs. In addition to a wonderful humanity, beautiful voice, and depth of feeling, Kimberly also brought joy: the joy I feel is essential to singing—and sometimes missing! She loves to sing and she loves to sing songs. I’m grateful she has included some of mine.”   All of these qualities that Jake had heard in Kimberly’s voice, and intuited in her personality, in November, were very her much in evidence as she and Ingrid put their own stamp on Newer Every Day.

Jake and Kimberly in her NKU studio in November 2014

Jake and Kimberly in her NKU studio in November 2014

I had heard that Ingrid loved all five of Heggie’s new songs as soon as she saw the score, and you could hear that in every note of the rhapsodic piano introduction to “Silence is all we dread” (J 1251), her two hands filling the sound world both vertically and horizontally until Kimberly’s voice entered, sang the song, and departed with a lyrical, spirited vocalise in the free play of song beyond words.

A different kind of joy is found in “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J 288).  Kimberly punctuated this song’s satirical humor with the hard “g” sound she gave to both ‘Frog” and “Bog” in “How public like a Frog / To tell one’s name / The lifelong June  / To an admiring Bog!”  Here, too, she showed great freedom in the scat-like “la da dee da da” that took us, with the singer, into a world of unfettered play.

“Fame is a bee” (J. 1763) went quickly, the “song,” the “wing,” and the “sting” each linked by the buzzing sound that Heggie gives to each of these elements.  Here, as in the previous song, Kimberly’s comedic gift went right to the heart of the audience, entirely in the service of the song she is singing.

kimberly after concert

The piano changes the mood in the slow, soulful introduction to “That I did always love” (J 549), a song whose aching melodic lines for a speaker who wishes to convince a loved one of her enduring love brings out all the best in a singer and pianist, each successive stanza building up to the declaration that “This—dost thou doubt—Sweet— / Then have I / Nothing to show / But Calvary,” the dissonance of the B flats in “But Calvary” dropping us into the singer’s heart.

Kimberly had always wanted to end this concert with the last song of Newer Every Day, which begins “Some say goodnight—at night— / I say goodnight by day—” (J 1739).  She sang it with infectious playfulness, giving just enough gravity to emotional essence of the poem that “parting is night” and “presence, simply dawn.”  Her transition to “Look back on Time, with kindly eyes— / He doubtless did his best—” (J 1478) brought a beautifully bittersweet reflection before the opening stanza repeated, twice, for the final “Good night.”

Kimberly and Ingrid receiving applause at the end of the concert

Kimberly and Ingrid receiving applause at the end of the concert

This all-Dickinson concert ended with a standing ovation. A very diverse audience had assembled, music majors mixing with literature students, Marathon readers with music faculty, members of my church choir from Covington with Kimberly’s voice students, out-of-town visitors including Kimberly’s parents and Ingrid’s mother from the East Coast and Claire Illouz from France.  The program was well adapted to this diverse audience, Heggie’s more openly accessible songs appealing more to some of the non-musicians who had not savored the Copland pieces as fully as those for whom that set of twelve was an absolutely unforgettable experience.

Standing ovation after Kimberlys final "Good-night"

Standing ovation after Kimberlys final “Good-night”

Audience members lingered, and lingered, many of them looking at John Campbell’s Dickinson screens as well as sharing their impressions of the concert and waiting to greet the performers.

after the music 2

Of course I got a photo with Kimberly, telling her and Ingrid that they had tonight delivered to me the most beautiful and meaningful musical gift I had ever received.

bob and kimberly 2

After the crowd finally cleared the stage, John Campbell, Jonathan Eaton, Matt Ruiz, and I disassembled the screens and moved each panel into a storeroom from which John and Matt would retrieve them the next day, moving them across the plaza into the library building so they could be reinstalled in time for the Emily Dickinson Tea Party that would conclude our second Marathon day.

Listen here to the live recording of Kimberly and Ingrid performing the last two Copland songs, “Going to Heaven!” (J. 79) and “The Chariot” (J 712):

 

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