Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Because I could not stop...

Last night I saw Ensemble for the Romantic Century's new show Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter with Emily Dickinson.

Since its founding in 2001, the Ensemble has produced a number of shows featuring music and texts of the long nineteenth century, including pieces on Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Mary Shelley, and the Dreyfus Affair.

I've always been interested in their work, but this is the first time I've made it to one of their shows. My trepidation has always been a feeling of "Yes... lovely... but what exactly is it? A play? A concert? A musical?"

The answer, at least for this show, is all and none of the above. In Because I Could Not Stop we get to hear some lovely pieces of Dickinson's writing, and we also get to listen to gorgeous music by Amy Beach. There's not really a story, but some general themes that bind the evening together. Sort of.

Actress Angelica Page portrays Dickinson, and recites fragments of poems and letters that have been arranged by the musicologist and playwright James Melo. Unfortunately, we only get bits and scraps. Even the titular poem of the show isn't recited in its entirely. Also, director Donald T. Sanders has Page recite poetry and prose with the same cadence, so Dickinson's strong sense of meter is lost.

For me, the real discovery of the piece was Amy Beach, the American composer who was born in 1867, while Dickinson was at the height of her poetic powers, and who lived well into the 20th century, dying in 1944. Interestingly enough, both women were discovered at around the same time. The Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered Beach's Gaelic Symphony in 1896, the same year the third series of Dickinson's poetry was published posthumously.

Because I Could Not Stop uses Beach's 1908 composition Piano Quintet in F#-minor as its musical centerpiece. Other works come from even later in her career, in the 1930s. I found this a bit jarring, since Beach's 20th-century music does not sound like the songs that influenced Dickinson's poems, which closely followed the ballad meter used in church hymns of her time. The show also features soprano Kristina Bachrach, but only one of the songs she sings is a setting of a Dickinson poem (and that one composed by Ricky Ian Gordon rather than Beach).

Putting Dickinson and Beach together has the effect of making us marvel at two great artists side by side, but neither one seems to particularly inform the other one. It would be nice to have a show that felt more unified, but it's hard to complain when the two artists juxtaposed against each other are both so wonderful.