nun's adventures

Notes on Sarah Connolly’s recital at Spivey Hall

I am in the middle of a music marathon month, traveling every weekend in March to hear live music. Between the travel, travel preparations, travel recovery (read: laundry), general domestic upkeep, and working full time on the weekdays, I have not had much time to sit and write down my reflections on the music I’ve heard. I managed to write some personal notes on Dead Man Walking only because I sacrificed half a night of sleep, writing between midnight and 3:00 a.m. after getting back from Washington.

Anyway, here is my first attempt to catch up and write down some thoughts on my music adventures before they fade completely.

I am so glad I went to Sarah Connolly’s recital with Joseph Middleton at Spivey Hall in Morrow, Georgia on March 11 of this year. (I put a curtain call pic here and another on Twitter if you want to go find it—I won’t link to my real-name Twitter account from Tumblr.) Sarah is always magnificent in recital but I personally would rate this as my favorite recital—by any artists—that I’ve ever yet attended. 

I think it was my favorite partly because of the frame of mind I was in. Before the recital, my husband and I went to a pre-concert talk on Copland’s Emily Dickinson songs by Clayton State music professor Kurt-Alexander Zeller. It was the perfect pre-concert talk for an art song recital: nothing terribly abstruse nor musicologically groundbreaking, but very informative for a general audience and attentive to the relationship between words and music. Prof. Zeller spoke about Copland’s biography and Dickinson’s, then nicely explicated a couple of the songs. I particularly remember him illustrating on the piano how, in “Nature, the gentlest mother,” the piano part represents the sounds and activities of the natural world while the voice acts more like the restraining maternal hand. 

Even though the talk focused on the Emily Dickinson songs, I think it really primed my brain for picking up on the relationship between music and poetry throughout the different repertoire choices of the whole recital. I could almost picture little flashes of light inside my head, like the glowing spots on a brain scan, as I had tiny little “aha” moments one after another.

It was also probably my favorite ever recital for emotional impact and connection with the singer. Sarah Connolly is always wonderful at engaging with her audience: “She WILL look you in the eye,” I told some friends ahead of Sarah’s recital at Park Avenue Armory. But since the Spivey Hall recital was (regrettably, due to Clayton State’s spring break and a competing choral event) rather sparsely attended, and since I was sitting in the center of Row E on a raked floor with an empty seat in front of me, I got even more eye contact than usual from Sarah. I actually had trouble keeping my eyes on her during the long piano coda for “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” because she was looking right at me for the first part of it and silently telegraphing pain so intensely that it was hard to be on the receiving end of it. After a couple of quick glances away, though, I locked my eyes on hers and mentally opened myself up as an empathetic receiver of the emotion for several seconds (that felt very long) until she shifted her gaze. I felt the sadness so much that when the piano music ended and it came time to applaud, I had trouble bringing my face back from what I am sure must have been a very grim look, even though Sarah herself had broken the “Frauenliebe” character and was smiling for her bows.

Now THAT is something you don’t get from listening to an album or even a live radio broadcast. I feel so lucky to have the means to attend great recitals from time to time. 

A few other memories that stand out from the Spivey Hall recital:

I think my response to Frauenliebe und -leben was uniquely shaped this time by the fact that I have had my wedding since the last time I heard Frauenliebe in recital. As Sarah sang “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern, Freundlich mich schmücken” I could not help but think of how, for the dancing at my wedding reception, I changed out of my long-trained wedding gown and into a more danceable dress that had been given to me by a good friend. Even though I didn’t have a gaggle of Schwestern beautifying me for my wedding, I had that freundlich gift, and I loved it. 

In the Dickinson songs, I especially remember my brain lighting up for “The Chariot.” I had heard Sarah Connolly sing the same selection of Dickinson songs at Alice Tully Hall two years ago, and “The Chariot” was a revelation to me then, but I still got an exciting new take on it this time around. 

For whatever reason, different aspects of the music came to my attention this time. I noticed the slow-ambling clip-clop rhythm in the piano part as played by Joseph Middleton, and that made me suddenly get a new view of the poem as a nineteenth-century courting ritual. The clip-clop reminded me of certain passages in a historic personal diary that I worked on a few years ago. The diary recorded (among many other episodes) the story of the writer’s courtship with his future wife in a small southern U.S. city in the 1880s. He had hardly any money and was struggling to establish a law career; his beloved, the “belle of the town,” was the daughter of a wealthy man who was less than enthusiastic about his daughter’s romance with the impecunious upstart lawyer. To evade the glowering patriarch’s scrutiny, the diarist used to hire an inexpensive horse-drawn cart for the afternoon and pick up his “belle” for long drives. It was on one such drive that he made a momentous confession of his love to her and she accepted it in return, effectively changing the course of their lives towards marriage. It was a scene of such great importance in the diary that he referred back to it decades later. Well, for some reason, even though I had studied Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death” (a.k.a. “The Chariot”) in some depth in college, it had never occurred to me to imagine the poem’s situation as a courtship scene, but suddenly while listening to Copland’s musical setting of Dickinson’s drive with death, it linked up in my mind with this diarist’s courting drives, giving me a new understanding of the poem. 

Copland’s setting of “The Chariot” ends with a very long-held note for the singer. I wrote about this note in my Alice Tully recital impressions, but it wasn’t until I heard it at Spivey Hall, where Sarah Connolly sustained it for an impossible-seeming two or three seconds beyond the silencing of the piano, that I suddenly clued in to the way the final syllable in eternity is held for a seeming eternity. Duh. It seems like a really basic and obvious point about the construction of the song, but I had previously noticed the general mood of the note in Sarah’s singing of it, not its relationship to the text. One can always learn something new!