Author: Berg, Gregory
Date published: May 1, 2012
Journal code: JRLS
Chester Biscanti: Sailors & Dreamers. William Ferguson, tenor; Sequitur: Tara Helen O'Connor, flute; Jo-Ann Sternberg, clarinet; Matthew Gold, percussion; Sara Laimon, piano; Miranda Cuckson, Sarah Crocker, violin; Daniel Panner, viola; Greg Hesselink, cello; Pawel Knapik, contrabass; Paul Hostetter, conductor, (chesterbiscardi. com; 26:38.)
"Head Out; You've Been on My Mind," "Play Me a Song," "Seven O'clock at the Cedar," "Do You Remember," "I Dance the Tango," "Falling Fast; Slow Wings," "It's Time to Feel Alright Now; The Edge."
Chester Biscardi is rapidly gaining stature as one of America's most capable and versatile composers, with a musical voice that if anything is growing more distinctive and compelling over time. Connoisseurs of vocal music will of course be most interested in what Biscardi has written for singers and might be inclined to view these works collectively as his finest artistic achievement. In fact, Biscardi has demonstrated consummate assurance and imagination in all of his compositions, including his many instrumental works. Sailors and Dreamers (like his opera Tight-Rope) is especially compelling because it combines his sensitive treatment of voice and text with his expert and imaginative skill at wielding instrumental colors, and one can only hope that there are going to be more such works in his future to showcase both aspects of Biscardi's considerable gifts.
Sailors and Dreamers was conceived by two faculty colleagues from Sarah Lawrence College, which would seem at a glance to be the most common-place of collaborations. Actually, there was nothing commonplace about how this intriguing and intensely personal work took shape. In 2007, Biscardi was spending part of an academic leave in Bogliasco, Italy, while a faculty colleague from the theater department, Shirley Kaplan, was spending a similar sort of leave in Majorca, Spain. At some point, Kaplan shared with Biscardi what have been described as "various ideas and samples" via email. What ensued is an artistic dialogue which the recording's liner notes likens to the figurative exchange of notes in a bottle. Building on mutual input, the two managed to create a work of haunting expressiveness and beauty that explores themes of friendship, memories, and the importance both of sailing out to sea and of returning to the shore (or "the edge," as it is referred to in these texts), where the experiences of the journey begin to make greater sense and find their true place in one's life. Ms. Kaplan, founder and codirector of the theater outreach program at Sarah Lawrence, is both a gifted playwright and painter, so it's no surprise that these texts are both theatrically and illustratively vibrant.
At some point, this project became a commission of The Koussevitzky Music Foundation under the auspices of the Library of Congress. With it, Biscardi was following in the footsteps of such previous recipients as Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Barber, Bela Bartok, Leonard Bernstein, and Olivier Messaien. In fact, his new work would join the ranks of such important masterworks as Britten's Peter Grimes and Francis Poulenc's Gloria already commissioned by the foundation. Heady company indeed!
Sailors and Dreamers was crafted for one of New York City's most admired instrumental ensembles, Sequitur, which for more than fifteen years has been performing what it describes as "new and unusual music linking the worlds of theater, visual art and dance." The song cycle served as the finale for the opening concert of Sequitur's 2007-2008 season, and this disk captured that world premiere performance. The soloist joining Sequitur on this occasion was tenor William Ferguson, an exceptionally versatile musician who had already sung in at least four world premieres, including new operas by Lee Hoiby and Anthony Davis, as well as the comic oratorio Not the Messiah. Biscardi could not have placed his new composition in more capable hands. Ferguson's voice is lovely and pliant and used with unfailing musicality and grace, with every word of the text delivered clearly and expressively. He also has a knack for stepping away from a purely classical approach when Biscardi's music requires a slightly more jazzy or pop style approach, yet does so smoothly without sounding like a completely different singer. Sequitur plays Biscardi's composition with great care and skill, and almost none of the hesitancy one would expect with a brand new work. That can be attributed both to the skill of these musicians as well as the viability of Biscardi's music; he is that relatively rare modern composer who seems concerned that his scores be fully performable. This is not to say that he writes simplistically or predictably, but rather that his music manages to be fresh and intriguing without being convoluted.
JOS music reviewer Judith Carman aptly described Sailors and Dreamers as "a hybrid work that crosses the boundaries between classical, jazz, and music theater techniques, creating an eclectic setting for both text and vocal line." The flavor of music theater is partly due to the instrumentation, which is reminiscent of Adam Guettel's Light in the Piazza or certain shows by Stephen Sondheim, with its rich array of colors set in a fairly spare frame through which the vocal lines easily emerge. The music itself is emphatically tonal and fairly romantic, but the mood ranges from the wistfully nostalgic to the boldly adventurous, with dissonance used sparingly yet tellingly for expressive effect. The work is unconventionally structured with ten songs spread over seven movements, with certain motives reiterated across movements to create a sense of cohesiveness that many modern song cycles fail to have. One recurrent musical element through much of the cycle is the tango, although its presence is sometimes quite subtle. More straightforward and quite effective is how the simple, chime-like tones that begin the first song return to anchor the seventh movement. Another unmistakable connection is made when the warmhearted "Play me a Song" is beguilingly recalled four movements later. This is an especially gorgeous theme and we welcome its reiteration.
Kaplan's texts demonstrate a sort of shimmering duality as they capture both the excitement of the voyage as well as the contentment of returning to one's own harbor. This is clearly so in the first movement, in which the poem "Head Out" ushers us on yet another journey, "ready to sail, bright and early," only to be followed directly by the gently reminiscent "You've Been on My Mind," which includes these tender words: "Time flies by and days disappear-but, dear friend, you are always near." The third and fifth movements take the listener on two of the most intriguing musical journeys. "Seven O'Clock at the Cedar" recounts an instance when famed painter Willem de Koonig is sitting and drinking and pondering what it is like "to be famous and suddenly old." Biscardi does a beautiful job of capturing this text's restless melancholy in his languid melodic lines and colorful, jazz-tinged harmonies. "I Dance the Tango" is the most musically emphatic song of the cycle, with the singer defiantly stating that he dances the tango "like I always did," only to eventually concede that the clock moves so quickly. Biscardi traces the emotional arc of this text with disarming authenticity. In between these two songs is the intriguing "Do you Remember," which lasts scarcely a minute, yet makes a deep and haunting impression through its carefully conceived reticence, with the voice shorn of almost all accompaniment. "Falling Fast" uses images of space to explore the nature of our memories, and Biscardi responds to Kaplan's exquisite lyrics with his most daring use of dissonance as well as some of the most striking combinations of timbre in the whole cycle. The move from this into "Slow Wings," the aforementioned partial reprise of "Play me a Song," comes as a comforting, cathartic relief. The seventh and final movement provides a still deeper sense of reassurance, especially with the gently throbbing chords that seem to evoke the lapping of the ocean's waves, the return of the tolling chime, and a final ascending line that seems to disappear into the open air. "Here's to the sailors and dreamers," says the poet, "who live without fear, far from shore."
This is a beautiful and imaginative work, and this live performance is satisfying in so many ways. One only wishes that the microphones could have been placed to capture William Ferguson's lovely voice with a bit more clarity and presence in relationship to the ten instrumentalists of Sequitur, whose exquisite playing occasionally overpowers him. More regrettable is the absence of printed texts, especially since Shirley Kaplan's poetry deserves further, careful reflection. Perhaps someday Sailors and Dreamers will receive a full-fledged studio recording. There is no question that it deserves it.
More information on this recording is available at http://chesterbiscardi.com, as well as in Judith Carman's thoughtful analysis in the November/December 2011 issue of Journal of Singing.