Thursday, November 03, 2016

By Turning We Come Round Right

This being a presidential election season, I took up some American songs this past year, performing and curating American-themed programs in Chicago, Washington DC, Istanbul and San Francisco this past year.  The theme I chose for many of these concerts, specifically those in Chicago and San Francisco, was something I loosely titled, American Spirit, focusing in on the American pre-occupation with faith and spirituality.

When thinking about the United States’ beginnings, we often think of the Pilgrims, whose famous meal with the Native Americans they encountered upon landing here we attempt to recreate every year at Thanksgiving. These pilgrims represent the two basic principles upon which the United States’ foundation is based: the search for both economic and religious freedom.  Ever since, Americans have been pre-occupied with their relationship to a higher power - whether it be the New England Transcendentalists seeking God in Nature, Joseph Smith translating the golden plates of the angel Moroni and founding the Mormon Church, or the political rise of the religious right.  I, myself, in true San Franciscan 'spiritual' fashion own no fewer than three yoga mats.

While faith and religion have played a fundamental part in the evolution of American identity, American composers have developed a distinctly unique relationship with these topics in contrast with their European counterparts.

What we now generally define as ‘Classical Music’ has its roots in the religions of Europe. Its earliest forms were composed specifically to augment religious rites, and eventually evolved into integral parts of worship. When we think of the great European composers, much of the music that deals with the topics of faith and religion is composed in a religious context—the many masses, cantatas, magnificats, te deums, requiem and passion settings that we know and love today. While there are, of course, exceptions to this generalization (Handel’s oratorios, for instance, which were composed as a practical and more economic replacement for the London opera productions that were becoming increasingly too expensive for him to mount), most of these pieces were composed for specific religious services and intended to be performed as part of the worship service. 

In contrast, much of the music written by American classical composers that deals with faith and spirituality has been written in a distinctly secular context. Even Bernstein’s Mass is a theater piece, juxtaposing the formal ritual of the Mass with texts by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz that challenge the religious teaching of the mass. The American composer generally only encounters this subject in the form of an artistic meditation on faith and belief, in a way that in recent years has become in fashion to call ‘spiritual’. These American Spirit programs explored some of these meditations.

The concept of what it is to be an American has loomed in my mind ever since having the honor to represent the United States at the BBC Singer of the World competition back in 2003.  The competition is a sort of vocal olympics, and walking into the lobby of my hotel in Cardiff, seeing the American flag hanging amongst the other flags of the other countries represented that year was the first time I really had ever considered what it was to be a representative of the United States and to be an American.  As the bi-racial child of an immigrant who grew up in the very white and black midwest, I had always felt a bit of an outsider in America.  Yet it was in that moment that I realized I am very much a part of the history of the great American cultural melting pot.  I've considered the many facets of what that means ever since, and performing these programs over the last year has been a wonderful deepening of that epiphany that I experienced so many years ago in Wales.

As we push through this final week of this wretched election cycle, I leave you with one of the songs we performed at the Hotel Rex for San Francisco Performances back in January: Aaron Copland's beautiful arrangement of the Shaker tune, Simple Gifts.  The words from the middle section of the song take on a different meaning for me now, after all the baseness and drama of the past few months of this fraught presidential contest: "To turn, turn will be our delight, and by turning, turning, we come round right." After all of the spinning we've been through as these campaigns have waged their wars against each other, I do hope that next Tuesday, we do actually come round right, so that we can, as the song says, "find ourselves in that place just be in the valley of love and delight."

arranged by Aaron Copland
Simple Gifts from 'Old American Songs'

TEXT (Shaker Folk Song):

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Nicholas Phan, tenor
Robert Mollicone, piano
recorded LIVE at SF Performances Salons at the Rex, January 28, 2016

Executive Producers: Nicholas Phan, Philip Wilder

Producer / Recording Engineer: Lolly Lewis
Recording assistant: Emma Logan
Mastering / Mixing: Piper Payne, Coast Mastering

Cinematography: Catharine Axley, Kristine Stolakis
Editor: Catharine Axley

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