I heard Cantori New York perform Chris DeBlasio’s *The Best-Beloved* on February 11th. It was presented on Zoom and started with a short lecture by a member of Cantori, Dr. Jeremy Cohan, who analyzed the Jacobean poems used in the piece. He came back between movements to give his poetry analysis of the next movement. I’m all for scholarship and for using the Zoom format to do something you wouldn’t do in a concert setting, but I would rather have heard more about DeBlasio (the music) and less about Jacobean poetry (the text).
My dear friend Susie told me about this concert. She was friends with DeBlasio, an American composer who died of AIDS in 1993 at the horrifically too young age of 34. The piece is written for mixed chorus and strings. Here’s a beautiful performance by the Harvard University Choir:
The text of the first movement was Psalm 63 from the King James Bible, which is (in a sense) classified as Jacobean poetry. The music was luminous, expressive, distinctive. The ending of the movement was shocking - - the harmony arrived at a logical conclusion but a prominent line in the strings landed on an unrelated note. I expected it to resolve but it did not, that seemingly wrong note resolutely stayed there. This was done with such assurance, it was chilling and a little upsetting. The effect was reminiscent of Britten or Shostakovich.
Cantori did something a little odd in the presentation. They played their recording of the piece with conductor Mark Shapiro in his little Zoom screen, conducting in his apartment, and various singers in Cantori singing along, each in their little Zoom screens, in their apartments. I didn’t quite see the point of that. I’d rather have seen well-chosen photographs, or followed the score, or seen the text, or some combination of these elements. The lip-synch and air-conductor idea wasn’t a good one.
The text for the second movement, “Holy Sonnet XIV” by John Donne, was less effective for me. Maybe it was too short. Maybe it’s because the sonnet (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”) is better known, for me, as an aria from John Adams’s *Doctor Atomic.*
The third movement is a setting of “Madrigal: My Thoughts Hold Mortal Strife” by William Drummond of Hawthornden. Shapiro and Cohan talked about the message encapsulated in the first two lines of the poem: “My thoughts hold mortal strife, / I do detest my life,” - - and how impactful it is that the poem was set by a young composer who knew he was dying. I think maybe a 17th-century poet had an everyday familiarity with death that might have been similar to the experience of a gay man in New York City in the late 80s and early 90s. The music had a nobility, a world-weariness, a transcendent quality.
The final movement is a setting of “A Divine Rapture” by Frances Quarles. I’d never heard of Quarles. Cohan mentioned that he was a distant ancestor of Langston Hughes! How marvelous is that. The music was full of warmth and melancholy, with a high (but not unreasonably high) line for the tenors at the start of the movement. The movement does something I love: it feels like a final movement from the very start. That’s always satisfying for me, as a listener.
My overall impression was one of great loss. DeBlasio was such a gifted composer, and I can only wonder about the pieces he never had a chance to write. He would only be 62 if he were still alive today. Plenty of great composers wrote great music into their 80s and beyond, it’s so unjust that DeBlasio died so young. I see this only from the perspective of him as a composer. Of course this feeling is immeasurably more intense for Susie and her circle of friends, who knew and loved him.