“The genesis of American Visions stems from my friendship with the eminent Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who was a Visiting Professor at New York University in the 1990’s, and for a semester lived across the hall from me in NYU faculty housing. As we got to know each other, I found myself more and more taken both with the drama and beautiful language of his poetry. Yevtushenko himself chose the first poem of the two-movement cycle, Who are you, Grand Canyon?, and to complement it and sustain the American theme, I selected Requiem for Challenger.
The cycle was first premiered in a chamber version by the Da Capo Chamber Players (with the poet in attendance), and performed by them on quite a few occasions subsequently, including on tour in Russia. A decade later, I had an opportunity to create a version of the work for orchestra---a version I had always intended to compose--for a concert celebrating the 90th anniversary of the New York University Department of Music.
The poem, “Who are you, Grand Canyon, portrays the vast expanse of the canyon as a mirror of history, with imagery ranging from “Che Guevara’s cigar” to “stone apple pie.” It reaches to a “Whitmanesque” tradition, as writer Robert Carl notes, and invites grand gestures in its musical rendering. The second song is more subdued, but for balance, it too seemed to require a climax of marked intensity. The work is approximately 26 minutes in length.” LK
Thomas Meglioranza, baritone, David Dzubay, conductor
Orchestra of the League of Composers
the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University, May 7, 2012
Louis Karchin (b1951) arrives on Bridge Records with a rich harvest of evocative vocal music written between 1992 and 2012. Philadelphia-born Karchin, Professor of Music at New York University, has an easy way with a comprehensive range of musical materials, shifting seamlessly between speeds and creating absorbing narratives both dramatic and intimate.
Karchin's music is closely attuned to the content of the texts, and the texts he chooses. for the two big works are complex and challenging: Yevgeny Yevtushenko's aggressive “Who are you, Grand Canyon?' and two of the American poet Dana Goia's most powerful lyrics. The music itself, of course, provides compelling, alternative ways of understanding what the poets were trying to say.
...Robert Carl's booklet-notes underline the importance of composers recording their own music. Karchin's approach in American Visions and The Gods of Winter is to lay down lines of structure and dynamic range in which his musical events can become organically embedded. Baritone Thomas Meglioranza has the lion's share of the vocal work and sings with eloquent passion and command.
To the Sun and Stars is a new album on Bridge of vocal music by Louis Karchin. The works – American Visions, To the Sun, To the Stars, The Gods of Winter, and ‘A Way Separate…’ – were written between 1992 and 2012, so provide a good cross-section of his style: dissonant, rhythmic and angular. This might sound forbidding except that he also does not eschew overt, even lush, tonal references as, for example, at the arresting major-chord declamation of ‘Who are you, Grand Canyon?’ a third of the way through the first movement of American Visions. Karchin is normally labelled a modernist, but such gestures give his music more flexibility and variety than perhaps the term suggests. This disc also demonstrates a gift for vocal writing; the texts set with great clarity and expressivity, the unobtrusive accompaniment supporting, colouring and commenting. Performances are rock-solid under the direction of the composer, the cast of singers impressive. The album is available on Spotify. Worth exploring.
EXCEPTIONAL NEW CD
A new CD of vocal music by Louis Karchin introduced me to this American composer who was born in Philadelphia, in 1951, and studied at the Eastman School and Harvard. What caught my eye, before my ear, was his setting of two major poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Who are you, Grand Canyon? and Requiem for Challenger. (Dmitri Shostakovich set Yevtushenko poems in his vocal Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar,” a work that instantly aroused high controversy in the Soviet Union for its depiction of the slaughter of Ukrainen Jews on the edge of Kiev by Nazis and local collaborators.) While Karchin’s reputation lies largely with his lyrical vocal music, including operas, Grand Canyon is told in bold declamation, its vocal line for baritone often quite angular recitative. The orchestral score that supports it is vividly colorful, powerfully energized and shrewdly crafted for wide-angle effect. Yevtushenko was plainly bowled over by that astonishing sight, “the miracle of its beauty.” He imputed to it all sorts of metaphorical allusions, Old Testament, circle of Dante’s hell, Noah’s ark, the Huns, Aztecs, Incas, the pyramids, the Kremlin, Ivan the Terrible, the battleship Potemkin, Sputnik, Che Guevara, and even a description of a blind teenage girl fearlessly making the long trek from the rim to the Colorado River. The musical score mirrors the vivid images like a tone poem.
Requiem honors those “seven evaporated souls” of the space-shuttle Challenger disaster, “the white tragic swan of farewell explosion.” Again, he paints the images through grandly exalted allusions. In both cases, Thomas Meglioranza articulates the narrative clearly; no need for subtitles to get his message. The Orchestra of the League of Composers is conducted by the composer.
Soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Eric Sedgwick in To the Sun and Ekmeles (a cappella choir) in To the Stars, both based on anonymous ancient texts, further polish Karchin’s art. The Da Capo Chamber Players support Meglioranza in The Gods of Winter, text by Dana Gioia, while Sharon Harms completes the program with A Way Separate.., poetry by Ruth Whitman and Hannah Senesh. Karchin garbs all these pieces in splendid instrumental and often spooky beauty. Highly recommended.