The John F. Center Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts saw an entirely unique compositional experience this past Thursday, November 4, when Grammy-award-winning mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the Music from Copland House ensemble took the stage. Though well versed in French and Italian opera, Graham’s performance was of a different ilk this time around; a 65-minute song cycle featuring thirteen movements, each representing an event or era in the past 50 years of American history.
The cherry on top? These pieces were composed for Graham’s voice and for Music from Copland House by former poet Laureate Rita Dove and world-renowned composer Richard Danielpour.
Set as the evening’s centerpiece, “A Standing Witness” is the first of its kind in many ways, a massive artistic undertaking that required the best collaboration between these individual artists. Dove took a break from her ongoing book tour promoting her newest collection “Playlist for the Apocalypse” to see Graham perform the piece for the first time on Thursday.
“I am so excited,” Dove gushes prior to the performance. A master of words and accomplished poet, she opts for a more relatable response when she tells us she’s speechless.
Dove and Danielpour spent several months writing together, a feat that Dove says required abundant patience and cooperation. “A Standing Witness” is historical timeline oriented, and by nature of that, forced to be linear. But poetic memory — and poetic motion — are rarely linear experiences. For Dove, it was all new.
“The way I work best if I’m doing anything poetic, is I work in fragments,” she says. “I let ideas and images hover, sometimes until they coalesce. So when I began working on this, I was working in a line here, a stanza there…And [Richard] said ‘Rita, Rita, Rita, I have to compose!’ I realized that for him as the composer, he had to think of the entire trajectory of the evening and didn’t have the luxury as I did, to nip and tuck as I go along. And so I had to really concentrate.”
Despite the difficulties of writing in interchangeable form, Dove and Danielpour had a common vernacular when it came to music. She played cello and viola da gamba until her multiple sclerosis made it difficult, before switching to voice lessons and dance.
That background, combined with a deep understanding of poetry as spoken song, aided her in her writing process. She tells us that poetry is the closest thing that language has to music, her voice lighthearted yet adamant.
“I was already unconsciously thinking of cadence… A line of poetry can translate in my head to two or three measures, or the length of a melodic phrase, or if a melodic phrase is going to be carried over with breath [in the next measure].”
Being a lover of music in all its many forms, Dove was also able to visualize how her words might take shape in Graham’s song. Graham’s voice is smooth, full, and perfectly rounded, dripping with richness like a cup of expensive black coffee. When combined with Dove’s poetics and Danielpour’s composition, Kennedy Center audiences were delivered an incomparable musical experience.
“A Standing Witness” covers a vast swath of US history in 13 individual songs, called “testimonies,” with subject matters ranging from Woodstock to Roe v. Wade to the “greed epidemic” of the ‘90’s. The song cycle ends on its most pertinent topic of the evening, Testimony 13; “Covid-19. Black Lives Matter. A nation spiraling through fear, splintered by blame.”
The decision to end on this realistic note is deeply impactful to both writer and audience. Despite its grimness, it allows for a shared understanding of how we move through history. Both the good and the bad are held to the same enduring, cosmic time signature. Dove pointed that reality out in several of the pieces.
“When the Berlin Wall fell, we were jubilant, but at the same time things were starting up in Iran and Afghanistan,” she says. “It just melts one into the other, all in one song.”
It’s a fascinating way to view history and a project that jumps easily between the micro and macro of worldviews. Dove talked about having to visualize how one choice can reverberate down through the decades or change the course of history, something acutely relevant to those who live in the District and watch these processes every day. The discussions over what to include between her and Danielpour were lengthy ones.
Susan Graham and Music from Copland House’s performance of “A Standing Witness” at the Kennedy Center came for Dove at a time when its relevance is undeniable, as Dove promotes her most recent collection of poems written over the past several years and compiled during Covid. Like many of us, Covid related cancellations forced her to sit with herself and her own emotions for months. Unlike many of us, she was able to channel it into a dazzling poetry collection that reflects life in this “blistered, shiny republic.”
The two seem to walk hand in hand; Dove’s fresh, vulnerable assertion and Graham’s deeply moving vocals. Richard Danielpour’s composition acted as the conduit to link songwriter to songstress and instrumental ensemble, a collaborative foursome that redefines what it is to listen to fine music in the twenty-first century. If a world-class opera could come with required reading, “Playlist for the Apocalypse” would be ours — but if we’re to stand witness to an apocalypse, we’d rather do it with this group.
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