Symphony review: Masterworks 4 poetically captures voice of ocean’s greatest creatures

By Larry Lapidus
The Spokesman-Review
November 5, 2023

Hardly had the echoes of Morihiko Nakahara’s rendition of Amy Beach’s mighty “Gaelic Symphony” died away at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox before Music Director James Lowe introduced another symphonic masterpiece little known in this country and unjustly neglected: “A Sea Symphony (1909)” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), one of the most significant composers in England’s musical history. The work made up most of the fourth program in the Spokane Symphony’s Masterwork series this season, but its companion on the program, “And God Created Great Whales (1970),” by American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), made an impression on the audience nearly as great.

Both Hovhaness and Vaughan Williams show us that an artist can stubbornly reject some aspects of traditional practices while embracing them just as defiantly. Between 1945 and 1965, when composers of concert music were becoming increasingly esoteric in their rejection of traditional harmonies and musical forms, Alan Hovhaness remained resolutely tonal and melodic in his method and determined to employ his musical gifts for the betterment of humanity rather than as a platform for personal advancement among a limited coterie of self-admiring professionals. He placed himself further and further from the traditional Judeo-Christian roots of European music and found greater promise in the ancient cultures of India and the South Pacific peoples.

In 1970, inspired by the runaway success of an LP containing recordings of whale-song, he composed “And God Created Great Whales,” a sort of tone poem that evoked the majesty and delicacy of those great animals, suggesting a link between their song and the patterns of harmony Hovhaness felt governed creation.

In this piece, Hovhaness employs a large orchestra, not to reproduce the sounds of whales moving about in the open ocean, but the emotional impact and sense of wonder a person might feel while observing them in their habitat. In Saturday’s performance, Hovhaness’ music was augmented by the video projection of whales both singly and in groups. This surely helped in the visualization of the sudden transitions in the music from quiet serenity to eruptive, even violent activity. It could be argued employing video reduced the audience’s engagement with the music, causing them to depend on the video rather than expanding their own powers of imagination, as Hovhaness certainly intended. Still, if the composer intended us to enjoy an experience of awe and wonder, that certainly was the result for Saturday’s audience.

After a protracted period of education, in which he studied with the foremost teachers of composition and orchestration of the time, including Maurice Ravel, Vaughan Williams resolved to make himself known as a new voice in English music, a voice at once deeply respectful of the long history of English choral music, while also willing to break with tradition when so urged by his art. He plainly meant to make a splash, as “A Sea Symphony,” his first major work to be performed and published, is impressive in its length – about 80 minutes, in the forces it requires – a full orchestra with augmented brass and percussion, an organ, two soloists and chorus, and its artistic and philosophical ambition.

One of the symphony’s most audacious features is its use of poetry taken from American poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” (1855) for the composition’s primary source for its structure and intellectual substance.

The excerpts taken by Vaughan Williams are bound together most obviously by their relevance to the sea, but more profoundly, by an underlying narrative. Thus, “A Sea Symphony” begins with “a rude brief recitative, / Of ships sailing the seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal,” and proceeds to a realization that all ships and all sailors fly a single banner: “one flag above all the rest, / A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death.” This is the flag flown by Whitman, who took himself as a representative of all mankind, and of the life-force, itself, and by the very self-confident composer of “A Sea Symphony.”

Tracing this archetypal progress required that all of the forces assembled on the stage of the Fox Theater, be they vocal or instrumental, employ every expressive device at their command, and to do so virtually without stopping. Every line, almost every phrase of Whitman’s poetry, after it is first introduced by a soloist, or by the chorus or by the orchestra, is repeated, echoed or completed by the other performers, leading to the impression that this journey is one in which everyone is both the follower and the leader; what Whitman/Vaughan Williams found to be true is true everywhere and always has been.

Though everyone in the performance bears the burden of carrying this narrative forward, the greatest portion falls to the chorus, which provides the voice of humanity(see Beethoven’s setting of “All Men shall be brothers”). Led by its director, Meg Stohlmann, the Spokane Symphony Chorale succeeded in navigating Whitman’s text not only clearly and accurately, but with bracing emotional specificity, whether it be the thrilling excitement of the famous opening, “Behold the sea, itself,” or the poignance with which the sopranos floated the central question, “Wherefore unsatisfied soul? … Whither O mocking life?” The performance by the sopranos of the Chorale was clear and gripping during the opening of the last movement, which contains the most transportingly beautiful music in the piece.

Graduate of the Eastman School of Music and holder of a master’s degree from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Spokane native Malinda Wagstaff took on the challenges of Vaughan Williams’ writing for the solo soprano and vanquished every one. Near the end of the first movement, for example, her voice soared above the full fortissimo of the massed chorus and orchestra with the phrase, “One flag universal,” to complete it with “one flag above all the rest” with the warmth and intimacy of a lullaby. This is certainly a voice to keep listening for. Cio-Cio San is in its future, and, perhaps, Sieglinde.

A well-established performer of opera and oratorio on stages throughout the world, Charles Robert Stephens is no stranger to Spokane, having appeared in a New Year’s Eve performance in 2019 conducted by Eckart Preu, and performed the title role in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and the part of the despicable Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” with Spokane Opera. He imparted the right tone of vigorous authority to Vaughan Williams’ depiction of bustling seaports and courageous sailors. His voice was less comfortable with some passages of yearning aspiration in the Symphony’s second movement, “On the Beach at Night, Alone,” where the composer leads the baritone voice into an uncommonly high range.

Lowe is as much to be admired for his courage in programming this challenging piece as for his skill in bringing it off so brilliantly in performance. Masterworks 4 was further evidence that the hand on the tiller of the Spokane Symphony is guided by an imaginative intelligence capable of leading us to sources of enlightenment and pleasure we never knew existed.