Ned Rorem's Evidence of Things Not Seen received its European premiere in Oxford. Rorem is a very important song composer, and this is a major cycle so it's a scoop for the Oxford Lieder Festival. Oxford Lieder spots what's good long before it reaches the mainstream. This is the way to keep your fingers on the pulse of what's happening in art song. Some of these concerts will be repeated later in London, but Oxford is where things start.
It's strange that a composer as famous as Ned Rorem should be considered "unknown" in Europe. He may not be performed here as frequently as he is in the US but everyone has access to recordings. Susan Grahams's Rorem Songs was a huge hit a few years ago, winning awards all over. Carole Farley's recorded him for Naxos and there's even a British recording of his Auden and Santa Fe songs (Black Box) And these are the tip of the iceberg.
The Prince Consort have recorded Rorem's On an Echoing Road for Linn. It's excellent - follow the link for extensive sound samples and hear why! Highly recommended for those who love RVW, Quilter, etc and want to hear how Rorem rejuvenates the form.
The Prince Consort is another Oxford Lieder discovery. This is a lively, flexible ensemble which brings together some of the most exciting young singers around. Many are already quite high profile - some have been heard at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Salzburg. They're seriously good - grab tickets for their Wigmore Hall appearance in January 2010.
Evidence of Things Not Seen is a collection of 36 songs that flow together to form a whole greater than its parts. The first group of songs are optimistic, open ended. Rorem calls them "Beginnings". "From whence cometh song?" is the very first line. The same questioning reappears throughout the cycle, expressed in Rorem's characteristic rising and falling cadences.
"Middles" (the middle section) explores ideas more deeply, rather like development in symphonic form. There are some very strong songs here, such as ..I saw a mass, from John Woolman's Journal. Woolman was a Quaker, and Quaker values infuse the whole 80 minute sequence. Indeed, the the title Evidence of Things Not seen comes from William Penn. Rorem's cadences are light quiet breathing, the way Quakers think things through in silent contemplation. Two songs to poems by Stephen Crane, The Candid Man and A Learned Man, provide counterpoint. The candid man blusters, using violence to impose his will.
Rorem chooses his texts carefully. Middles ends with a song to an 18th century hymn text by Thomas Ken which leads into Julien Green's He thinks upon his Death. W H Auden jostles with Robert Frost, Colette with A E Housman. Mark Doty and Paul Monette write poems referring to AIDS. Jane Kenyon's The Sick Wife poignantly describes a woman lost , still young, to some illness that keep her alive but barely sensate. In its own simple, direct way it connects to the final song, in which Penn reflects on the Bible. "For Death is no more than the Turning of us over from Time to Eternity". Whatever the Evidence of Things Not Seen may be, following the journey in a performance as good as this is a moving experienece.
The Prince Consort was represented tonight by its founder, the pianist Alisdair Hogarth, and the singers Anna Leese, Jennifer Johnston, Nicholas Mulroy and Jacques Imbrailo (a former Jette Parker artist) Perhaps the sparse audience showed that people are scared off by the idea of an "unknown" modern American composer. Too bad, it's their loss. This was excellent music in excellent performance and really deserved better exposure. Public booking for the Wigmore Hall concert in January starts next week - don't miss the next chance to hear these songs again.