NOVA Chamber Music Series’ Fierce Grace excellent musical stemwinder call to history

Fierce Grace, the most recent NOVA Chamber Music Series’ concert, was more than a credible parallel where music and song stood in for the stemwinders one might have heard at a political rally during the suffragette and civil rights movements.

Rousing spiritual moments highlighted the three works, including the Utah premiere of the cycle of four songs (Fierce Grace: Jeannette Rankin: A Song Cycle), performed by mezzo soprano Heather Johnson and pianist Mila Henry. The 2017 work, which received its premiere in a U.S. Library of Congress concert, celebrates the legacy of the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. From Montana, Rankin (1880-1973) also was one of the few suffragists elected to the U.S. Congress, and the only member to vote against U.S. participation in World War I and II.

Mila Henry, Heather Johnson and Rebecca McFaul in talkback after the concert.

No question, the song cycle takes Rankin from the footnotes of history and places her in the main text among the pioneers in the women’s rights movement. Working with the libretto by Kimberly Reed, the four composers – Kitty Brazelton, Laura Kaminsky, Laura Karpman and Ellen Reid – anchor Rankin’s significance for a contemporary audience’s relevant appreciation of why her history matters currently and urgently. The four songs cover several signature moments in Rankin’s life: 1917 and 1941, when she cast the votes against the U.S. entry in both world wars; 1968, when she participated in protests urging the U.S. military to leave Vietnam, and the postscript about the enduring relevance of her message, as discovered by a young student.

A key running thread cites “a habit of peace.” The exceptional opening song, composed by Reid, sets up the motif astutely from Reed’s libretto. While one might be justified to arrive quickly at outrage, the focus should always be on the long game to change our collective mindset, as Rankin understood in her long life of advocacy. Johnson, impressively superseding some minor respiratory illness symptoms, gives full voice to the lyrics: 

Remember Mary’s good advice: Never mind if you do not convert the multitude. Others will follow who can finish the job… Leave a twig or two of laurel for someone else who must come after

That last phrase “must come after” marks the end of each of the first three songs. Unexpectedly moving in sentiment, the final song underscores the open-ended implications of Rankin’s legacy, supported exquisitely by Karpman’s writing. The ‘voice’ here is of a young scholar discovering the work of Rankin and other women’s rights pioneers and the joy accompanying it. The lyrics bring the ‘rally’ to the appropriate reflective close in its firm but spiritually sensitive message to a new generation who now stands ready to carry on the fight for the “habit of peace”:

I sing upon your many twigs of laurel. I think upon you, and thank upon you. And sing upon you, and song upon you. I sing on your song. This is my thanks, this is your song, My song. Our song… Our song.

The music is earthy, sinewy and bravura in its operatic textures, as Henry’s exceptional playing supports Johnson’s stirring interpretation. The duo is the only set of artists who have performed the work publicly and the unique chemistry for this work is evident in their rendering. There were some moments, especially in the middle two songs, where the writing for the piano nearly obscures the voice, courtesy of the strong bright acoustics of the Libby Gardner Hall at The University of Utah.

The first half encompassed knockout performances of intimate chamber music featuring the violin, in particular. Madeline Adkins, Utah Symphony concertmaster and former NOVA music director, was joined by pianist Kimi Kawashima in John Halle’s Amen Choruses (2016), a tour de force blend of jazz, soul, gospel, blues and minimalism. This was a perfect opener for the Fierce Grace musical rally.

Alex and Aubrey Woods: Credit: Holy Sheet Music.

Just as mesmerizing was One Eternal Round (2015) for two violins by Christian Asplund, a composer based at Brigham Young University, performed by Alex and Aubrey Woods. Asplund composed the work specifically for the duo and here the bright acoustics of the hall did eminent justice in savoring the full experience of a fascinating musical interaction. The best way to think about this music is how the aesthetics and principles of Bach, Cage and Messiaen can be synthesized in such a rejuvenating way to exploit the full sonic opportunities of just two violins.

Fierce Grace continues the superb programming journey crafted by the Fry Street Quartet, NOVA’s music directors.

The next concert is the second of the Gallery Series on March 1 (3 p.m.) at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. It is a first for NOVA in terms of geographic region representation: Nordic Spirit, with chamber music by two giants of the region: Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), featuring his Violin Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Opus 35, and the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), featuring the String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Opus 27. From the contemporary period, the program will include Finland’s Kaija Saariaho (1952-) with Tocar for violin and piano (1952-) and Iceland’s Karólína Eiríksdóttir (1951-) with Flute Reel for solo flute. Tickets are going quickly for this concert.

The next Gardner subscription series concert will be March 29 (3 p.m.). A take-no-prisoners display of musical genius will dominate Darkness and Light (March 29, 2020). Among the works is Eonta (1964) by Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) for two trumpets, three trombones and piano. The brass players walk around on stage and modify their work instruments’ position to create unique spatial effects. Also slated is Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) Schall und Hall (1983) for trombone and organ. The program will close with the extraordinary String Quintet in C major, D. 956 by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), which the composer completed in the last days of his life. Scored for two violins, viola and two cellos, the work expands the sonorous possibilities for string players. It is a shimmering masterpiece.

For more information, see the NOVA Chamber Music Series website.

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