2. AMERICA, SINGING by Gilda Lyons
For Carol of Words Gilda Lyons created an ensemble using almost all our forces. It’s a trio for mezzo, tenor and baritone with violin, double bass and piano. It is “America, Singing.”
This is a piece with a lot of gravitas. One that makes space for deep thought, and that in certain moments catches you unaware, almost unprepared for its sometimes unsettling stirrings.
In the composer talk that preceded the premiere, Gilda was forthright about what it was like to read and set Whitman now, as opposed to, say, a few years ago, which she, in fact, had done. She was thoughtful in her response. “This is a strange and difficult time…” She chose to compose a lament. Her piece is based on Purcell’s ground from “When I am laid in earth,” – a dirge.
I asked Gilda if Whitman’s musical, poetic voice presented any challenges in the settings of it. Gilda responded to this, and more. She shared the narrative arc she wanted to express.
One of the great challenges in setting Whitman is that the voice is so musical and so strong, and so the way that I got at the thing that I needed to talk about, was that I distilled the Whitman. Commonly when people set Whitman, often times they are setting lines 14 through 17 of a very long piece. With my piece, I went further even than that. I actually took three poems. I took “I hear America singing”, I took “America,” and I took a line from the preface of “Leaves of Grass,” – “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” – because of this idea that brothers and sisters are equal. In “I hear America Singing” there is this long list of people. In Whitman’s language it has gender. By distilling it out, it then makes it all one. It makes the point that America is equated with equality itself – [and this, expressed] through the magic of poetry.
That was the essence for me of these three pieces, and that’s what I wanted to get to.
* * *
And now for the piece itself:
Gilda Lyon’s “America, Singing.”
text by Walt Whitman
Raehann Bryce-Davis, Mezzo Soprano
James Reese, Tenor
Keith Phares, Baritone
Laura Ward, piano, Min-Young Kim, Violin and Tim Ressler, Double Bass
CAROL OF WORDS – Walt Whitman in Song April 9, 2019, Church of St. Matthew & St. Timothy, NYC
Commissioned by Lyric Fest through a generous gift By Peter C. Phillips in honor of his wife, Georgette Chapman Phillips.