Shawn Jaeger, in “Letters Made With Gold,” memorably reset the lyrics of three folk songs to spare, enigmatic melodies that leapt and oozed unpredictably. Margot Rood, a soprano, performed with luminosity and grace. And when Fanny Alofs, a mezzo-soprano, brought an arresting intensity to “And am I born to die?” you sensed the entire audience holding its breath in wonder.
The singing traditions of the Old Regular Baptists in Appalachia inspired Shawn Jaeger’s “Wondering Eyes.” Introspective, mournful passages meshed into frantic fiddling in the evocative work, which received its premiere here.
Shawn Jaeger’s “Poor and Wretched,” which opened the program, was inspired by an arcane form of hymn singing, used by Appalachian Baptist congregations, in which the chorus freely echoes a leader rather than precisely following a score. “I wanted to capture the complexity, rawness and honesty” of that music, Jaeger told the audience. “Poor” proved to be a luminous piece that treated the instrumental ensemble much like a chorus, united in a loosely flowing, soft-edged sort of hymn, full of the natural inflections and patterns of human speech. There may have been more calculated inexactness to the music than raw spontaneity, and it never quite captured the ecstatic quality of the original singing. But the work’s warmth and quiet beauty were often deeply moving.
Combine her theatrical presentation on the Mahler with a sparse and haunting new work by young American composer Shawn Jaeger and this return visit might have been the soprano's most satisfying one of the past few years.
Jaeger's "The Cold Pane" often pushes minimalism to its maximum in barren austerity, as Upshaw's unpredictable vocal lines (ranging from a whisper to a shout) cut jagged patterns atop violently plucked pizzicato and the drummed bodies of string instruments. It's a curious work that doesn't always seem to keep its mood in sync with poet Wendell Berry's words. But it certainly has a sound world of its own.
As part of the Concert Artists Guild’s commissioning program, which has produced some 100 new works since 1984, the program featured the premiere of Shawn Jaeger’s “Thousands of Years to Make It What It Was,” inspired by a poem by Wendell Berry about a field whose soil eroded after being cleared for farmland. Introducing his piece, Mr. Jaeger described the poem as being about both human error and faith that things will grow again.
The work’s solitary piano notes and spare violin whispers, which evolved into turbulent interludes featuring broad violin strokes over a chaotic dissonant piano accompaniment, certainly suggested uprooting and disconnection. And if not hope, the stark, bleak conclusion vividly depicted the barren aftermath of human interference in nature.
More intriguing, though, was Shawn Jaeger’s “The Cold Pane” (2013), settings of five stark Wendell Berry poems in which Ms. Upshaw was joined by an unusual group — clarinet, mandolin, violin and double bass — drawn from the ensemble Contemporaneous. It’s a thoughtful work: The background of “Raindrops” is formed by the musicians’ lightly tapping on their instruments, and “The Widower” joins milky clarinet tones with a vibrating mandolin strum.
Following this was Shawn Jaeger’s The Cold Pane, from a poem [sic] by Wendell Berry—a desolate meditation on death, rather than a remembrance of life. Scored for soprano, clarinet, mandolin, violin, and bass, the music upends all expectations of homophonic accompaniment, replacing it with a radically ascetic collection of sharp pizzicatos, tappings, and clacks. Against this, Upshaw sang subdued, languid lines, and the result was unsettling and engrossing.
Shawn Jaeger’s cycle, The Cold Pane, draws on an unusually thoughtful quintet of poems by Wendell Berry, set in motion by the composer’s often subtle effects. In “Raindrops,” pianissimo clicking and tapping, coupled with asymmetrical rhythmic patterns, showed uncanny skill in evoking water falling on a tin roof. Upshaw’s lustrous instrument was delicately framed by members of Contemporaneous, adroitly led by conductor David Bloom.
In the gospel-tinged “In Old Virginny” for voice and double bass, by Shawn Jaeger, it’s the bowed bass (played elegantly by Doug Balliett) that is agitated and cerebral, while the vocal part is natural and free.
[Dawn] Upshaw joined in for a Finale. It was an arrangement by a Bard [sic] student composer, Shawn Jaeger, of a Percy Grainger arrangement of a traditional Scottish folk song, “Scotch Strathspey and Reel.” You probably know it as “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” What Jaeger did to this drunken sailor was throw seven singers, two pianos and an alto clarinet at him. This was not a blended Scotch reel, but rather folksong as an aged, complex single malt, different flavors interacting with intoxicating complexity.
The program opened with Shawn Jaeger’s Thy Wondering Eyes (2010), a Midwest premiere. McSweeney introduced the piece, noting that it was partly inspired by Jaeger’s Kentucky roots, which were evident throughout the piece. Jumping off with a fractured bluegrass theme, the music careened from crazy rhythms and dissonance to dreamy sequences with long melodic lines; from an energetic, sometimes frenetic pace, to a slower, more deliberate tempo. Conjuring Kentucky’s hill country milieu, there were segments that evoked a back-woods revival meeting with call-and-response phrasing leading to a crazy-fast tempo, like a fast talking minister speaking in tongues. It was clear the players were deeply committed and thoroughly enjoyed playing this spirited work.
In Old Virginny, by Shawn Jaeger, juxtaposed a forthright Appalachian lament with a snarling, snaky bassline, played athletically by Doug Balliett, to surprisingly tender effect.
Former Artistic Partner Dawn Upshaw returned to Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra last weekend (heard Saturday night at Ordway Center in St. Paul) with mixed results. She sang the world premiere of a disappointing song cycle by Shawn Jaeger, “The Cold Pane,” which was an SPCO commission. The cycle, setting poems by Jaeger’s fellow Kentuckian, the environmental activist, poet and farmer Wendell Berry, was accompanied by violin, mandolin, clarinet and double bass. It opened with harsh pizzicato notes on the violin—an overly familiar world of dissonance. The most lyrical moment was accompanied by violin, mandolin and bass used as percussion instruments. Moments of Appalachian folk music, played on the mandolin, only emphasized the overall lack of melody. Upshaw made the best of her spiky vocal lines, but poor diction hurt her chances of getting across the poetry. But Jaeger was not very successful at conveying the texts’ meanings anyway.
Shawn Jaeger’s gentle Träumerei starts Greif on a scooter, and ends with the singer curled up on the floor as the familiar Schumann piano strains enter—seems peaceful enough, or is it?
March 7, 2014
Perhaps the young composer was convincing to Berry because, like him, Jaeger is a Kentucky native. Or maybe his earnest interest in the tradition of Appalachian folk music won Berry’s sympathies. But most likely, his genuine feeling for the characters of “Payne Hollow,” Harlan and Anna Hubbard, spoke to the author. Berry’s close friendship with the Hubbards — who lived at the bank of the Ohio River from 1951 to 1986, painting, scavenging, making music and farming — inspired not only Berry’s original work but much of his lifelong philosophy of self-sufficiency.
Jaeger has come to share that philosophy, bringing him close to the story of the Hubbards, whose ghosts are the principal characters and singers of the opera. When he conceived of the work, Jaeger “was living in the Hudson Valley and getting really into the whole experience of having a garden and growing my own food, into the satisfaction of that.” In the summer, he and his wife did a work-trade at Hearty Roots community farm in Redhook. “I thought, well homesteading isn’t a typical subject that you see represented in opera. At least in the traditional repertoire, the canon, it’s a lot of nobility, not people just trying to support themselves by living off the land.”