Review: A Sea Symphony
By Perry Tannenbaum
Unlike the beauteous and quiescent beginning of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” that we hear more often in live performance, A Sea Symphony is rousing, massive, commanding, and majestic soon after its opening measures, with the pomp and arrogance of empire pulsing through its exclamatory choral armada. The audience at the Duke Family Performance Hall may have been startled by the onslaught of this opening movement, but with three Davidson College choruses, two vocal soloists, and the Davidson College Pro Arte Orchestra arrayed before them, they couldn’t have been completely surprised. A glance at the first line, “Behold, the sea itself,” of the Walt Whitman text tipped us off to the imperative tone that was coming, and the three teeming pages of text that followed in the program booklet were a clear indication that it would not be long delayed.
The juxtaposition of America’s signature poet with this British composer’s first symphony becomes more natural when you realize that the lives of Whitman (1819-92) and Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) overlapped a full 20 years and that the composer began the piece just eleven years after the Good Gray Poet’s death. Two of the five poems that form the text were actually published during the composer’s lifetime and two others were first unveiled just a year before he was born. The exuberance of a composer reaching his prime blends powerfully with the confidence of a poet who had already become his nation’s voice. Similarly, the commercial aspects of Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition,” written and read at the invitation of the American Institute at the opening of 40th Annual Exhibition in New York (1871), blend perfectly with the sea-spectacle of ocean vessels that Vaughan Williams paints with his chorale.
While this concert was staged at the Knobloch Campus Center at Davidson College, it quickly became apparent that I might construe the “Pro” component of Davidson Pro Arte in a couple of ways. Most of the musicians, 68 percent of the 40-piece ensemble, were indeed professionals, recognizable as members of the Charlotte Symphony, including four of its principals. Nor did I need to worry about the maturity of the solo vocalists. Bass-baritone Dan Boye and soprano Jacquelyn Culpepper have sung with the Charlotte and North Carolina Symphonies as well as appearing in numerous Opera Carolina productions. With all that local professionalism on hand, it might be useful to step back and appreciate how special this event was. Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony isn’t merely outside the core repertoire that most American orchestras perform; the only American recording I can find of this grand work came from the Atlanta Symphony on the Telarc label in 2006.
No, American singers do not often take on this quintessentially American text, and everybody on hand seemed buoyed by the occasion, including Pro Arte director Christopher Gilliam. And why not? The brass section, the three choruses, and timpanist Justin Bunting were all called into action before the strings. Once this éclat is exuberantly played out, the piece becomes more interesting as the text shifts from its brief “Exposition” excerpt to a judiciously trimmed version of “Song for All Seas, All Ships.” In a piece headed toward the mystic universality of Whitman’s visionary “Passage to India,” these invocations of all nations’ flags, all captains, all sailors on all seas serve as a bustling, worldly foreshadowing. To give us this bustling sensation, Vaughan Williams stirred in all his forces.
Boye took up most of the opening stanza alone, beginning with “Today a rude recitative,” but after the baritone invoked the sea’s “dashing spray,” the choruses – with another thump of timpani – whooshed in with the sudden onset of “the winds piping and blowing.” We stayed on a fairly even keel when the focus shifted from the elements to the captains and sailors. It was only when Culpepper launched the final stanza, “Flaunt out O sea your separate flags,” with a flourish of the brass behind her, that the full grandeur and variety of the opening Moderato maestoso movement was reached, fueled by the soprano’s most forceful and memorable work. Like Boye, she interacted with the chorus, but before fading into sublimity, Culpepper gave way to mighty entrances from Boye and the chorus in the penultimate line, “A pennant universal,” as her entrance – and her high notes – sealed the kinship between this first movement of Vaughan Williams’ symphonic output and Beethoven’s last.
To contrast with this sunny, majestic opening, Vaughan Williams chose “On the Beach at Night, Alone” for his Largo sostenuto. Boye was sterner than necessary, sterner than the gentle women’s voices behind him, in the meditative opening lines before the music and the text rose up to the cosmic “All souls, all living bodies.” Like the opening “Song for all Seas,” the second movement circled back to its opening line, but here the cellos and Erica Cice’s oboe increased the darkling solemnity. For his other middle movement, a Scherzo, the composer chose even more brilliantly, since “After the Sea-Ship” gave him a chance for a stylistic excursion into overtly programmatic music, most of it feasted upon by the choruses, though it was Bunting’s timpani that cued up the oceanic turbulence. The singing grew almost anthemic in the penultimate line that began with “A motley procession,” and the four-time repetition of the final word, “following,” sounded like a volley of amens in sacred music, except that the crashing of cymbals by Tara Villa Keith convinced me that it was a joyous plunge, over and over, into the waves.
A triumphal ending like this in a section Vaughan Williams titled “The Waves” might have seemed excessive if his outer movements hadn’t ended in sublimity. The beginning of the final “Explorers” movement, with text culled from three of the nine sections of “Passage to India,” offered a different kind of contrast. Orchestra and chorus grew so soft, delicate, and slow that we seemed to be floating in a mist, perfectly complementing the first line of Whitman’s section 5, “O vast Rondure, swimming in space.” The chorus built to an affirmation nearly as mighty as the waves’ when we reached the description of a poet, “The true son of God,” who shall come after scientists and engineers have done their work. But this concluding movement was not yet half done. Vaughan Williams re-launched his finale from total silence, setting the last two sections of Whitman’s “Passage” and bringing the solo voices back into his grand scheme.
After the largely devotional section 8, we set sail jubilantly as Culpepper, Boye, and the chorus took turns proclaiming “Away O soul!” Timpani and cymbals piled on shortly afterwards in the “Sail forth” stanza of section 9, punctuating a piercing high note from Culpepper. Softer at the end and fading away, Culpepper and Boye were at their sweetest, truly sailing away into the horizon – and because it was to India, eastward into a gleaming sunrise. Only the strings remained with the basses in the wake of the departed voices, reminding me of the primal quality that underpins creation in the opening bars of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It’s so soft and low that neither of the recordings I have – or a couple more I referenced on Spotify – comes close to replicating the special benediction the contrabasses bestowed on the ending. That’s another reason why this live Sea Symphony was so rare and treasurable.