Yehudi Wyner : Give Thanks for All Things
November 5 2010
David Hoose, conductor
Jordan Hall, BostonComposer Note:
When David Hoose invited me to write a piece for the Cantata Singers I proposed a Comic Cantata. I thought I’d had enough of the high rhetoric of elevated sentiments, or moralistic parables, of passionate religious narratives, of confrontations with death and the hereafter. I searched in vain for a text, a scenario. I sought guidance from the fellowship of eminent living poets but nothing lit the fire of fun I was seeking. Finally I abandoned my original idea and turned to a slender sheaf of poems I’d been assembling over several years. Most were old: biblical psalms, Cato fragments, Shakespeare, Medieval Irish, but also Whitman and a recent psalm by Richard Wilbur. With the exception of the biblical psalms the texts were about death and grieving…the ultimate comedy?
One of the pleasures aroused by the anticipation of a new work by Yehudi Wyner is the certainty that the outcome will arouse even greater pleasure. That was indeed the case with Wyner's latest work, Give Thanks for All Things, which is also the latest in the impressive line-up of works created for David Hoose and the Cantata Singers. Wyner doesn't want to call the piece a cantata, yet it's structured like one: a musical setting for soloists, chorus, and orchestra bringing together a number of poetic texts with a related theme. It's a piece that evidently kept getting bigger as Wyner began to assemble it. And now, at nearly 40 minutes, it's one of his most substantial and ambitious pieces — and one of his most beautiful and moving.
In a pre-concert talk (which he called "an informal sharing of a little data and ill-formed opinion"), Wyner said that, "sick of the rhetoric of high sentiments," he first intended this work to be a kind of comedy, or divine comedy. But as he gathered the texts from his own "sheaf" of poems he'd been assembling for years, most of them seemed to be about confronting death. "The ultimate comedy?" he asks in his program note. In his talk, he referred to the final chorus ("Tutto nel mondo è burla" — "The whole world's a joke") of Falstaff, Verdi's last opera, completed when he was 89. Wyner is only 81 (and seems 20 years younger), but it seems he's thinking about "last things."
Give Thanks begins (with a celebratory blast of the trombone) and ends (quietly) with joyous psalm settings, using as a refrain a prayer variously attributed to Breton, Irish, and Swedish fishermen: "Dear Lord, be good to me. The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small." The third and simplest reiteration of this prayer, sung and played just before the end with heartbreaking eloquence by mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove, clarinettist Bruce Creditor, and harpist Franziska Huhn, is the deep moment of interior quietude everything has been leading up to. Just before this comes a powerful, bardic setting of Whitman's "Dirge for Two Veterans," which is about a father and son both killed in battle. An earlier section unites a passage attributed to Cato ("We well know that death shall come") with Claudio's desperate plea for life in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure ("Ay, but to die and go we know not where"). The title of the piece comes from "Psalm," a recent Richard Wilbur poem praising, with musical imagery, both joy and "shared grief." The music is endlessly rich, orchestrally inventive without merely Mickey Mousing the texts, and it goes straight to the heart without becoming sentimental.
Lloyd Schwartz, The Phoenix, 09/11/2010
In this case, the news of the night was the unveiling of a significant, capacious new work for chorus and orchestra by the distinguished Boston-based composer Yehudi Wyner entitled “Give Thanks for All Things.’’
The title bespeaks a sense of autumnal gratitude, which is certainly a theme of this engrossing work, but also only part of the picture. Wyner, who celebrated his 80th birthday last season with tributes across the city, has a knack for composing against the grain. As he explained in a preconcert lecture, he had recently been feeling “sick of high-flown rhetoric’’ and instead wanted to find a text that could make for a “comic cantata.’’ It never materialized, so Wyner instead turned to a stack of poems he had put aside over the years, incorporating several into the frame of his new work together with a setting of two biblical Psalms (Nos. 148 and 150) and Richard Wilbur’s “Psalm,’’ from whose opening line the piece derives its title.
Wilbur’s poem begins with thanks ringing out on “plucked lute’’ and “lifted horn’’ but it quickly takes a somber turn toward “a cello of shared grief.’’ Wyner’s work, too, turns in on itself as the exuberant energy of the opening gives way to meditations on death and ultimate things, with help from Shakespeare, and in a most imaginative treatment, Whitman (“Dirge for Two Veterans’’). At the emotional core of the work are three distinct settings of a touchingly simple fisherman’s prayer: “Dear Lord be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.’’
The first time the prayer appears the choral writing is fractured, a kind of fragile quivering music that is almost dispersed by a burst of pulsating brass. The setting captures the primal sense of awe, fear, and wonder one may feel before the vastness of the sea. But it is the prayer’s third and final return that is the most arresting, as Wyner clears out the chorus and the orchestra and assigns the text to a soprano soloist supported only by violins. The blend of treble sonorities lends a sense of weightlessness while the stripped-down elegance of the writing captures the core humility of the prayer. The lines float and weave around each other with a dark beauty, as if lit from within.
Jeremy Eichler, The Boston Globe, 08/11/2010