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In Memoriam
Soloists, Valley Festival Orchestra and Amherst College Concert Choir
Lewis Spratlin conducting

Streaming: Quartet for Piano and Strings
Yvonne Lam. Violin; David Kim, viola; Christian-Pierre La Marca, cello; Xiang Zou, piano

Navona Records

“Sun, Sun, you bring us light. Never can we pay for the blessings that you give to us.” Thus begins a Mayan prayer to the Sun that calls forth an appropriately rhythmical choral setting by American composer Lewis Spratlan, concluding Part IV of In Memoriam. Earlier, in the course of the Mexican Serenade portion of Spratlan’s ambitious choral work, the composer waxes lyrical in a soprano/tenor duet: “And when I close my eyes at night / I hear the threadbare music / of your streets / and I fall asleep as if adrift / in the air of Sinaloa.” Here, the unmistakable echoes of Mexican popular song add to the enchantment of the nocturnal images in the poetry by Pablo Neruda.

Unfortunately, there are precious few instances of such perfect melding of poetic inspiration and musical setting in the 50-minutes length of In Memoriam, based on translations of Spanish language poetry by Neruda and César Vallejo. Spratlan’s professed aim is to celebrate the resilient spirit of the people of Mexico and Central America in their journey from pre-Columbian times to the present, in spite of an often tragic and bloody history, just as the land itself seems to be endlessly renewed by luxuriant foliage. That’s all well and good, although just how much a Miami, Florida native like Spratlan can be expected to understand an alien culture – to which he is not, unlike Neruda and Vallejo, an inheritor – could be debated. True, the Mayans made impressive achievements in art, architecture, mathematics, and astronomy, but they also practiced very bloody human sacrifice. That’s not so easy for a modern person to relate to! And future generations will require historical footnotes for references to “Trujillo” and “Somoza” in the revolutionary theme of Neruda’s “The Hero.”

The greater problem is that Spratlan basically employs a style of heightened declamation, a sort of tortured sprechstimme in American English, for the great majority of his settings. One hears this all too often in contemporary choral and vocal settings, and the effect is tedious in the extreme when carried over a long work such as In Memoriam. Free, unrhymed verse explodes in a spectacular profusion of imagery such as “The peace, the wasp, the shoe heels, the slopes / the dead, the deciliters, the owl, / the places, the ringworm, the sarcophagi, the glass, the brunettes, / the ignorance, the kettle, / the altar boy, the drops, the oblivion / the potentate, the cousins, the archangels, / the needle, the priests, the ebony, the rebuff, / the part, the type, the stupor, the soul”¦” (Vallejo). These things, to Vallejo, are part of the stored common memories that a poet must not forget, but how do you set them to music?

The sad truism that second-rate poets – the Wilhelm Müllers rather than the Pablo Nerudas – are more likely to inspire great music than the truly great ones would seem to apply here. Also, the live recording of In Memoriam, made in April 1993 in Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College, is less than optimal in the clarity with which it registers the large forces employed here, 5 solo vocalists plus a chorus of 110 singers and 70 instrumentalists. There’s too much bleed-through in the moments of heightened intensity. The recording sounds as if it were intended for archival purposes, rather than commercial release.

“Streaming” for Piano and Strings (2004) benefits from a better recording, which is essential since so much of the effectiveness of the music is in its details. Spratlan claims to have aspired to something analogous to a stream of consciousness in literature, in which “ideas and images appear, merge, retreat, reappear changed, [and] jostle for place” (Spratlan), much as in the state in we emerge from sleep but are not yet fully conscious. With repeated auditions, the 16-minute piece appears less aleatoric (i.e., by random chance) than we might have at first imagined. A principle of form begins to emerge from the “buzz of consciousness” (Spratlan) that employs vivid contrasts between a beautiful, languid theme in the strings, like a slowly drifting cloud tinted by the colors of sunset, and bumptious, scrambling frenetic figures that threaten to overwhelm it.

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