One of the highlights of this weekend’s Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival was the presentation of four arias from Daniel Sonenberg’s recently completed opera, “The Summer King.”
“The Summer King” may not be the next “Aida,” but I found the arias quite moving, well written and strikingly individual.
They were sung by baritone Ron Williams, soprano Luette Saul, tenor Joshua Williams, and baritone Joshua Miller, with a spoken part by Jeremiah Haley. Accompanist Bridget Convey made the piano score sound orchestral.
Sonenberg, composer in residence at the University of Southern Maine, based the opera on the tragic life of Josh Gibson, a catcher and home-run king of the Negro Leagues, who might, if not for alcohol and bouts of madness, have been the first black player to join major league baseball. He died in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
The composer also wrote the fine libretto, with Daniel Nestor.
The first aria, a duet between Josh and his wife Helen, ( sung by Williams and Saul) in which she announces the joyful news of her pregnancy, is especially poignant, if one is aware that she would die in childbirth. The two are admiring “a beautiful afternoon” and the duet ends with “May it always stay this way.”
The duet is probably the most “modern” of the four, with the soprano voice like an obligato or two-voice counterpoint over Josh’s lyrical bass line. The two voices sometimes collide in a dissonance that hints at approaching darkness.
Clark and Calvin’s Duet, “We’re Only Thinking of What’s Best for You,” is sung by Witham and Miller, with Josh barely managing to get in a “Yes, sir.” It depicts the smarmy, racist behavior of the owners of the Washington Senators as they pretend to interview Josh about joining the club.
Its accompaniment is a down and dirty waltz in 4/4 time, with a sardonic flavor that would have made Shostakovich smile.
The solo aria by Grace, Josh’s lover, sung by Saul, manages to be both lyrical, seductive and deeply sad as she muses about the inevitable end of the affair while she sings to Josh: “Love, whether it’s good for you or not.”
The elegy to Josh, sung by his friend Sam (Williams), is the most powerful of the four, speculating on the tragedy and the bleak future and the end of a way of life. The music here has a tolling bell theme, sometimes reminiscent of Debussy’s “Cathedral Engloutie.”
Judging by Saturday’s samples, a full staging of “The Summer King” would be well worthwhile.
The operatic interludes were followed by a brilliant performance of John Cage’s 4’33″ by composer and pianist Elliott Schwartz and some very amusing, not to say virtuosic, compositions for contrabass and trumpet by Maine composers Ben Noyes, Joshua DeScherer and Mark Tipton. The final one, “The Intergalactic Meanderings of Barnabas P. Merriweather XIII,” written by Tipton and played by DeScherer on contrabass, is quite incredible, as the bass imitates rapid speech better than a talking drum.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at: