Spokane Symphony audiences enjoyed a rare treat this weekend. World premieres carry their own thrill, but rarely does an audience find itself witnessing a masterful composer celebrating a great occasion by delivering an impressive work into the hands of ideal interpreters.
With Michael Daugherty’s “Letters From Lincoln” at The Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox on Saturday, the audience found itself in the presence of a moving tribute to our 16th president.
“Letters From Lincoln” was commissioned by the Spokane Symphony with money from the Bruce Ferden Fund for New Music. The performance was recorded by E1 Music for release later this season. The work will be performed this fall in Italy at Milan’s “SettembreMusica” festival and by the Elgin (Ill.) Symphony, which also supported the commission.
Unlike Aaron Copland’s widely performed “Lincoln Portrait,” Daugherty’s “Letters From Lincoln” sets only Lincoln’s own words as a song cycle for baritone, not for a narrator. And unlike Copland, Daugherty attempts to show the various facets of Lincoln, the man, rather than painting an “official (musical) portrait.” That is a very tall order, but on the basis of one hearing, “Letters From Lincoln” seemed a great success.
Daugherty does not shun the complexities of dissonance and rhythm found in 21st-century musical language, but he does not use complexity to shut the listener out, either. “Letters From Lincoln” seems a challenging but and ear-friendly work for any attentive listener.
Thomas Hampson proved the ideal soloist. Of course, Hampson is a local favorite, having performed with the symphony since he was a teenager when he went to school at Eastern and at Fort Wright College.
But far more than that, this internationally acclaimed baritone brought to Daugherty’s cycle a beautiful voice and a stunning intelligence, both of which wrapped themselves around Lincoln’s words and Daugherty’s music. There was no histrionics in Hampson’s performance; the drama was in his voice.
Daugherty opened the work with “Lincoln’s Funeral Train,” a short instrumental introduction that set the solemn tone of the cycle with Union and Confederate trumpets answering calls across the stage against a murmur of strings.
The “Autobiography” that followed was plain and short, like a recitative, with Lincoln’s terse description of himself. Then, in a striking contrast, Daugherty showed Lincoln’s funny side with an exuberant setting of a few lines of doggerel the teenage future president wrote in his sum book. Country fiddling (done with rustic verve by concertmaster Mateuz Wolski) and rhythmic scratching on a washboard and puckish brass interjections served as the section’s backdrop.
The text of “The Mystic Chords of Memory” was drawn from the ending of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address but began with the drumbeat of Hampson singing the words “bloody,” “war,” “conflict,” “fields,” “bones.” Both Lincoln and Daugherty exploited the double meaning in the word “chords,” both as musical sounds like an exhausted sigh of descending chords and “cords” in clusters of notes which bind people and the nation together.
In “Mystic Chords,” as elsewhere in the work, Daugherty made unobtrusive use of musical quotation. Here it was the spiritual “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”
“Mrs. Lincoln’s Music Box” proved mostly an orchestral fantasy centered on the eerie sound of the music box mechanism, the song “The Last Rose of Summer” (one of Lincoln’s favorites) and the distant trumpet calls of “Charge.” During the dark days when the outcome at Gettysburg and Vicksburg still hung in the balance, Lincoln had a bad dream about his son Tad. Only at the very end of this fantasy did Hampson sing the 15 words of Lincoln’s melancholy telegram to his wife about that “ugly” dream, in which he urged her to hide the boy’s gun. But it was as moving as a Bach arioso.
Daugherty admitted in pre-concert remarks Saturday that the “Gettysburg Address” gave him the most nervous moments in writing “Letters From Lincoln.” But he accomplished it with both economy and powerful ingenuity. The composer’s subtle use of quotation was, again, remarkable. Fragments of “Hail to the Chief,” “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” turn up. The overall effect was as moving as Lincoln’s words. That’s saying a lot.
Spokane can be proud of Daugherty’s fine new work performed so beautifully by Hampson, conductor Eckart Preu and the orchestra. Saturday’s audience gave the work and its performers a prolonged standing ovation. “The Letter to Mrs. Bixby,” Lincoln’s letter to a mother who had lost five sons in battle, was the encore, provoking another ovation.