It was Donald Hall’s night at the Guggenheim on Monday. Works and Process feted the eighty year-old former Poet Laureate of the United States with a program of music, readings, and conversation. The evening included five premieres, all commissioned by W&P.
Sarah Rothenberg interviewed Hall onstage, discussing his two most recent books, White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006, and the 2007 memoir Eagle Pond. Although he’s a bit grizzled and rumply in appearance, Hall was still a lively interview subject. His readings and insights on the life of a poet were simultaneously entertaining and edifying. Rothenberg also moderated a roundtable discussion with the featured composers: Drew Baker, Joshua Schmidt, George Lewis, David Del Tredici, and Charles Wuorinen. Each briefly described their reactions to Hall’s poetry and approach to text-setting.
The music was a mixed bag, stylistically speaking; but the disparate selections were, for the most part, well-performed. Baker set “The Sea” for mezzo soprano (Mary Nessinger), cello (Fred Sherry), and electronics. The tape part incorporated snatches of sea sounds and a recording of Hall reading the poem; the musicians were amplified as well. While creating an ambiance, the amplification and electronic adornments also tended to blur the words. Conversely, Wuorinen’s setting of “Moon Clock” was incisively clear; baritone Thomas Meglioranza and bassoonist Peter Kolkay gave it a superlatively well-prepared rendition.
David Del Tredici combined two poems written over four decades apart, “The Poem” and “The Master,” into an “introduction” and an “aria” meditating the mediation between artistic inspiration and its creator. Del Tredici played the Straussian, hyper-romantic accompaniment; soprano Lauren Flanigan gave an over-the-top performance, mugging a bit with gesticulations towards Hall.
George Lewis set “The Painted Bed” for tenor (Robert Frankenberry) and viola (Lois Martin). Frankenberry seemed a bit taxed by both the tessitura and chromaticism of the vocal line; Martin, on the other hand, nimbly executed a challenging and florid accompaniment. Schmidt took a short poem, “Routine,” and elongated it through repetition, seeking to imitate the refrain of the daily grind. Meglioranza negotiated the angular, rangy vocal part with suavity; bass clarinetist Moran Katz did similarly with the catalog of special effects employed in her part.
There’s frequent sadness in Hall’s poetry; many of his recent works mourn the untimely death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. But in person, he seemed upbeat and engaged, discussing poetic technique, enduring friendships, and abiding interests with enthusiasm. His ability to transcend vicissitudes and channel them into eloquent artistic expression is inspiring.