Brahms, Elgar & The Brothers Balliett: Conductor's Note from Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro Conductor The Cecilia Chorus of New York

Mark Shapiro
The Cecilia Chorus of New York

As we sought to craft a program that would do appropriate honor to Alice Mandelick Flagler, an early leader, benefactor and alto member of The Cecilia Chorus of New York, we hit on the beguiling notion of a triptych, each of whose works would feature mezzo-soprano solo with chorus and orchestra. This led us to reflect on the ecological predicament of the mezzo-soprano voice. In choruses, altos (mezzos’ rustic cousins) are “an inner part,” a lovely Cinderella consigned to a deceptively humble-seeming service, often, and oh so wrongly, likened to a sort of choral scullery. Like bridesmaids, they do the vital, exacting work of holding the show together, soldiering gamely on as, time and again, glory and appreciation are heedlessly bestowed “above.” That is to say, the spotlight is most often trained elsewhere. When chorus altos are maximally effective in discharging their quietly essential role, audiences may casually be led to exclaim at the sopranos’ radiance. “Your sister is so beautiful!” In opera, mezzo-sopranos are often (though of course not always) character parts: mothers, aunts, witches, servants, vamps, comedians…and men! 

Looking at these works by Brahms and Elgar, we were struck by the poetry latent in each composer’s choice of a lone mezzo to counterbalance the chorus. She embodies nobility, wisdom, tenderness – and a poignant solitariness. The mezzo here is a Romantic figure, a heroic seer, situated in, but separate from, a vast and intimidating space. For both Brahms and Elgar, the voice type seems to resonate within their psyches: the isolated artist laboring amid a teeming humanity to fulfill a grand but strenuous destiny, striving to be heard above the din, and to matter. 

As conversations progressed with The Brothers Balliett about our commission, and as they zeroed in on their subject, we all knew we were on to something. The mezzo makes an ideal proxy for the luminescent spirit of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. The baleful landscape in which the mezzo does valiant battle – and finds transcendence – is the neuroscientist’s own injured brain.

In disparate but related ways, all three works reckon with the twofold challenge to engage with and ultimately to reshape reality – to influence an outcome. While this is their defining narrative arc, there is meanwhile a nonlinear fluctuation between states, one trancelike and suspended, the other active and directed. All three grapple with the search for a larger purpose and invoke the universal yearning for meaning, wholeness, and belonging in both place and time. In each, insight is achieved, though inevitably at a cost. As Brahms’s Rhapsody begins, a restless orchestration evokes the blasted landscape into which a lost soul has strayed. Elgar too, deploying jagged rhythms and sharp accents, depicts a surging wilderness. The musical gestures are of disorientation and unease. The problem the music is metaphorically articulating: alienation. Not without irony, the Balliett Brothers open 50 Trillion Molecular Geniuses with a knowing fugue that enacts the hustle and scurry of professional academia – as prologue and context for the fateful vascular event.

In the Alto Rhapsody, the hopeful prospect of reintegration is portrayed musically by a warmly plagal (amen-sounding) hymn accompanied by male chorus, a staple Masonic trope. Interestingly, Brahms, Elgar and the Brothers Balliett all instinctively turn to a chorale texture to render the experience of heightened self-awareness and inner focus (“Ist auf einem Psalter”; “We are the music-makers”; “I’m having a stroke”). Further, both Brahms and Elgar and their respective poets intuit something special about the practice of music in particular, with the stimulus of musical sound as a kind of secret doorway to spiritual rebirth. They understand it, as all musicians do, as the very thing that gives life sense. 

Nonetheless Elgar has doubts. Self-taught and chronically insecure about his own relevance, he often lost his bearings, felt himself splintered and adrift in ways that Brahms would have recognized and that Dr. Taylor, amazingly and inspiringly, overmastered. Elgar is energized by O’Shaughnessy’s poem, yet his approach is bittersweet, vulnerable and devoid of jingoism. Therein lies the work’s singular and lasting beauty. In The Music Makers Elgar quotes extensively and pertinently from his own compositions, weaving himself into the sonic narrative, as it were, thereby imparting to his musical setting an added layer of significance. Very “meta,” as the expression goes. About The Music Makers Elgar observed: “I have written out my soul.” In an era of the stiff upper lip, his art turned out to be presciently (and to some uncomprehending critics, distastefully) confessional, yet it is not in the least bit self-regarding or boastful (a charge that could fairly be leveled at Richard Strauss’s somewhat earlier A Hero’s Life, in which the composer similarly breaches the fourth wall by self-referentially quoting his own earlier music). 

If I have referred to Brahms and Elgar and Jill Bolte Taylor, and less so to the extraordinary Brothers Balliett, it is perhaps because our collaboration has been such a close and fulfilling one and is still fresh (and they have generously contributed a program note of their own). The imagination and skill that Brad and Doug have brought to bear on Dr. Taylor’s unique text are astonishing. I admire them, and am grateful.

©Mark Shapiro 2019