A Composer’s Call for Environmental Change

15/11/2017

Margaret Brouwer: Angela Mitchell (soprano), Merav Eldan (mezzo-soprano), Brian Skoog (tenor), Bryant Bush (bass), Oberlin Musical Union (Gregory Ristow, director), Cleveland Institute of Music Children’s Choir (Jennifer Call, director), Blue Streak Ensemble / Domenico Boyagian (conductor). Breen Center for the Arts, Cleveland, Ohio, 12.11.2017. (MSJ)

Margaret Brouwer, composer of <i>Voice of the Lake</i> (c) Classical Music Communications

Margaret Brouwer, composer of Voice of the Lake
(c) Classical Music Communications

Margaret Brouwer – Voice of the Lake (2017)

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary gestures. Normally, I wouldn’t be too thrilled with a musical work closing with a direct exhortation to the audience, because such sentiments often hold more impact when perceived as part of a relationship among characters being observed (more on this, below). But there are times when the creative artist has to speak directly, and Margaret Brouwer has taken this route in her new oratorio, The Voice of the Lake.

One shouldn’t mistake this approach for being a kind of recycled 1960s agit-prop, though. Brouwer portrays the wide-ranging human relationships with the Great Lakes—specifically Lake Erie, the inland sea upon whose shore Cleveland is perched. Her imagery runs from the innocence of children playing in the water to bureaucratic obtuseness, from troubled dreams to a sunrise of hope. Its overall tone is mostly gentle and evocative.

An opening rippling of waves returns throughout as a unifying motif. “Part I: At the Lake” features the children’s choir both singing and laughing, a charming effect—brightly energetic, yet totally natural—beautifully done by the Cleveland Institute of Music Children’s Choir. A fisherman tended to his work (voiced richly by Bryant Bush) and the adults (the Oberlin Musical Union in fine voice) sang poetic observations of the lake, before a newspaper report of a “toxic blob” nearing a city’s water intake valve.

Until that point, the music was brightly tonal and minimal, almost to a fault, hammering home the innocence-about-to-be-corrupted theme a little disingenuously. But with the darkening came an increase in complexity. The musicians, Brouwer’s own Blue Streak Ensemble (named for a vintage roller coaster at Cedar Point, an amusement park along the Lake Erie shore), skillfully depicted the growing storm, which erupted in a virtuoso percussion cadenza played by Luke Rinderknecht to close the movement.

Brouwer’s text is an interesting collage. Some is poetry by David Adams, combined with more prosaic observations collected by Brouwer herself. But most unexpectedly, in “Part II: The Public Hearing,” she uses actual transcripts of a public forum. In the forum, citizens and Cleveland Congresswoman Marcia Fudge protested the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to dredge the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland, then dump the sludge out in Lake Erie—a plan deemed reasonable because the lake floor was already polluted.

Tenor Brian Skoog didn’t just sing brilliantly, he actually embodied the persona of the Corps functionary as he recited the repetitive, numbing bureaucratic reasoning—one of the highlights. Brouwer gave the sequence a subtly hilarious setting, with the cumbersome legalese causing musical emphasis to fall on the “wrong” words in every sentence, a witty skewering of the government’s “tin ear” for the truth. The choir chimed in with commentary, uniting in a grand major chord every time they returned to the word “citizens.”

“Part III: The Dream” opens with gorgeous, otherworldly textures. The soprano, bright-voiced Angela Mitchell, sang of troubled dreams about the lake and its pollution. The mezzo-soprano, the dusky-voiced Merav Eldan, sang a lullaby leading into a visionary instrumental passage. Accompanying the latter were video projections of images of trash, storm runoff, sewage, agricultural fertilizer, and more going into the lake, slowly changing to images of pollution-fighting efforts such as rain gardens, grass-stripping in agricultural fields to slow down storm runoff, and other conservation ideas.

Explanatory captions came with some of the images, rather losing the evocativeness of the dream sequence. Perhaps the captions could be rewritten to blend in a little better. If they are adjusted for future use, they should also be moved to the top edge of each picture. The video projection screen came down almost all the way to the floor behind the choir, making captions along the bottom edge almost unreadable.

“Part IV: Sunrise on the Lake” brought some attractively naturalistic bird and animal sounds. The movement as a whole brought all the singers and players together, under conductor Domenico Boyagian’s attentive baton, to pensively ask the listener to help engage with the world and save the lake. Direct exhortation can be tricky. Beethoven was able to pull it off with sheer charisma in his Symphony No. 9. Others have had a rougher time, as it is easy to come across as hectoring, but Brouwer kept her plea subdued, inviting instead of scolding.

But the closing was still a direct admonition, which wasn’t as moving as much as the public hearing or the dream sequence. In those sections, the singers embodied characters who popped off the page, and a larger structure began to appear. The characters (the dreamer, the bureaucratic functionary, the protesting member of the public, the lullaby-singing woman) were engaged in relationships, and the audience became a third party, witnessing it all. When direct pleading occurred, it seemed more two-dimensional.

In an interview for a preview of this concert, Brouwer mentioned she is considering further development, or possibly writing a parallel work, going in the direction of an opera. While often quite moving—this premiere received a standing ovation from the large audience at the Breen Center for the Arts—in an operatic context, Brouwer’s message would be able to set its hooks in more deeply.

Whichever way the message is delivered, it is an important one for a nation living in extraordinary times, as the hubris related to environmental abuse is elevated to belief and policy in some circles. The Voice of the Lake needs to be heard.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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