Deep in the canyons of Chicago’s central Loop is a nondescript office building that houses a gem of a performance space. On the third floor of 11 E. Adams St. is Guarneri Hall, a room that brings new meaning to the word intimate. Aside from having excellent acoustics, there is no stage or any other barrier between performer and audience, which enables innovative programming. That was on offer Thursday night, when Lost in Translation, a sold-out, interactive event, merged words and music better than few other performances I’ve ever seen.
Per the program’s title, translations permeated everything. First was the setting of poetry to music. In Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a Wayfarer), Gustave Mahler, in his first published song cycle, scored his own German poetry for an orchestra and baritone. Earlier this year Augusta Read Thomas from the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago, created the song cycle Upon Wings of Words, which set four poems by Emily Dickinson to string quartet and soprano.
A second translation was the transcription of these two song cycles to a non-vocal quintet formed by a string quartet and English horn, the tenor/alto member of the oboe family that mimics the sound of a human voice better than any other instrument. Members of the Nexus Chamber Ensemble, joined by Robert Walters on the English horn, were able to give these works a wonderful blend of beauty and bounce.
For the Mahler, Chicago conductor and composer Cliff Colnot and Guarneri Hall Artistic Director Stefan Hersh converted a score for voice and full orchestra to a chamber music quintet. It had to be quite a challenge, and they pulled it off wonderfully.
By contrast, Upon Wings of Words was already a quintet for string quartet and soprano. But, as Thomas explained afterward, using an English horn instead of a soprano in the transcribed piece Stardust required more than simply giving the vocal line to the English horn. As she said, “It became a five-way braid,” which was eminently apparent in the way the melodic lines got passed between the instruments. The English horn was more integrated into the mix, and the quartet played a much bigger role than that of a backup band.
During the performance, music was not the only thing being highlighted. Lost In Translation blended the art forms of music and poetry in a better way than I have seen previously. As Stefan Hersh explained at the beginning, the evening’s purpose was to pair music inspired by poetry with the poetry itself. He noted that the art forms of poetry and classical music do not mix all that often, and that, in today’s world, both are little appreciated by society. To that end, poet David Yezzi from Johns Hopkins, explained and read the underlying poems before each piece.
In the case of Mahler, Yezzi read his own translation. If there is any wonder why Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D-major, the Titan, is so amazing, Song of the Wayfarer may have something to do with it. Mahler got practice using many of Titan’s themes in this earlier work. The transcription was amazingly effective, and the performance a knock-out. Walters and the Nexus Ensemble, comprising ensemble leaders Alexander Hersh on cello and Brian Hong on violin, joined by Rannveig Marta Sarc on violin and Chloé Thominet on viola, blended perfectly. At times their respective timbres were almost indistinct, creating a marvelous musical aura.
This feature was especially evident in Stardust. The ensemble captured the five-way braid exquisitely, but really shone in “The Sea of Sunset,” where the muted strings created a seamless aura with the English horn.
Thomas has the total gift of putting into music everyday sounds and experiences, and she has previously worked with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The opening movement “Snowflakes” bore this out, with images of snowflakes dancing the jig in a jolly, yet reflective fashion. As one can watch in any January in Chicago, individual snowflakes are not the same, and they fall and blow in a variety of ways dependent on wind and other conditions. Within a uniform musical framework, Thomas reflects this natural randomness as the notes jump around between the instruments.
The evening ended with an extended question and answer session with the performers, Thomas, Yezzi, and Stefan Hersh. It shed light on all the complexities embodied by translating words into music and then transcribing vocal music into instrumental music. It was pointed out that translations and transcriptions inevitably require changing or sacrificing something from the original. One thing in Upon Wings of Words that Thomas did not sacrifice in creating Stardust were high vocal notes that are hard for an English horn to perform. Walters managed to reproduce them beautifully.
In terms of duration, the music itself was not all that long. However, Lost in Translation was more than music accompanied by program notes: it created a wonderful experience. I’m looking forward to more experiences at Guarneri Hall. Up next Debussy and Ravel, a concert of chamber music by these two marvelous French contemporaries. Friday, November 19, 6:30 pm, $10-$40.