22 October 2010

Bolcom’s ‘The Hawthorn Tree’

All New York seems to be arrayed in celebration of Joyce Castle this week: the trees are dressed in her colors, russet and gold and green. She’s here for the world premiere of The Hawthorn Tree, a song cycle written especially for her by the wonderful William Bolcom. There will be four performances this week, all with a chamber ensemble of members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and I’ll attend two: opening night, Wednesday, 20 October, at the Morgan Library; and tomorrow afternoon, at the Brooklyn Museum.

So I expect I’ll have a good deal more to say about The Hawthorn Tree, as days go by, and in any case it seems premature to say too much while the performances are still ongoing: this seems a wonderful occasion to consider a new composition and a performance as a process, and a series of experiences, rather than as a discrete hour. It’s also an occasion to celebrate Joyce’s 40th-anniversary season — which is why Maestro Bolcom wrote the cycle.

Reason to celebrate!
Joyce as Herodias, Seattle, 2001

“I made my debut when I was 12,” Joyce joked the other day, but I think she looks pretty much as if she made the debut at 2 or 3, or minus 3: it’s hard to make any sense of those 40 years. Except when I start to reckon up the great roles of her career (including the many performances that I’ve been lucky enough to see — latecomer though I am, arriving on the scene a mere quarter-century ago). Just the list of Joyce’s premieres would fill a career for most people: only a few of these are the New York premieres of Weisgall’s Esther and Einem’s The Visit of the Old Lady; the American premieres of Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale; and the world premieres of Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles, Argento’s The Dream of Valentino, and Torke’s Strawberry Fields.

Not forgetting The Hawthorn Tree. On Wednesday, Joyce strode onstage in a chocolate-colored gown that reminded me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (whom Joyce incarnated in another cycle, Statuesque, written for her not long ago by Jake Heggie). It’s a beautiful dress, perfectly appropriate for a diva in recital, but as soon as Joyce began to sing, she announced that this was no ordinary performance.

In Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, Central City, 2010
(That’s the wonderful Emily Pulley in the background.)

Bolcom has set seven poems by women to music that is ingratiating and satisfying, natural and expressive. He’s never been afraid of giving pleasure in song, which isn’t the same thing as saying that his work is fun (though it frequently is), and he’s an astute judge of a smart mezzo with a feel for character — he’s married to one, Joan Morris. He’s crafted for Joyce a real showcase, and while I’m reluctant to put words in her mouth (any further), several of the lyrics really seemed to speak to Joyce’s life. In the first song, taken from Elinor Wylie’s “Let No Charitable Hope,” she announces:
In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.
And listening, I thought, “That sounds like the Joyce I know” — even though the song concludes on a sustained piano high note that sounds more wistful than the zesty smiles I see from her in life.

For these performances, Joyce has relied on musicians from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, rather than playing her own instrumental accompaniment.
(Joyce as Lady Jane in Patience, Glimmerglass, 2004.)

What Joyce proceeded to do throughout the evening was not merely to engage her audience and communicate with us, but to characterize us. This is an exceptional accomplishment, and I’d better explain it. Each of Bolcom’s songs is a monologue, and in singing, Joyce entered into a character and created a miniature drama. However, this meant that we weren’t passively listening but transformed into an other, the character who took part in a dialogue with Joyce. Though we didn’t answer with words or music, we might have: we were participants, and I had the clear sense that each scene had a before and an after, when my “character” would have made a response.

In my career as an audience, I’ve attended many, many recitals and concerts, but I’ve never gotten quite this feeling, something beyond engagement, beyond even complicity.

I’ll have more to say about The Hawthorn Tree in days to come, but this news needed announcing now: Joyce is doing something extraordinary in New York this week, in brilliantly crafted music that she offers to us completely. She sounds wonderful, she looks divine, and she’s an indisputably great artist. No wonder the trees are celebrating her.

Why would anyone want to escape her smile, anyway?

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