When Americans celebrate their more significant secular holidays with art, they notoriously reach for hackneyed expressions which are at best well-intentioned and at worst, totally empty. Williams College, however, produced a notable exception to this in New Morning for The World, a concert piece for winds, percussion, and piano, with recitation, by the distinguished American composer Joseph Schwantner. Regrettably I missed the performance, but I recently came upon a video of the event, filmed by the Mexican video artist and activist Berta Jottar, who is a member of the Williams faculty, along with Omar Sangare, who recited the texts by Martin Luther King, Jr. to the accompaniment of Schwantner’s music. The music and the selection from Dr. King’s speeches was work of a high order, powerful in its effect, as was Dr. Sangare’s recitation and the performance of the Williams Symphonic Winds under their director, Stephen Dennis Bodner, who has been responsible for a series of ambitious, original programs over this academic year and before.
Jacob’s Pillow may have evolved beyond biblical allusions to the Book of Genesis, but the spirit of its namesake is exquisitely infused into the fabric of the choreographic creations that have swept across the Pillow’s three stages, carving a legacy that is nothing short of divine. Opening with Garth Fagan’s theatric masterpiece Griot New York and concluding with the wit and charisma of Larry Keigwin’s Keigwin + Company, the 2008 Festival season, I have no doubt, will be no exception.
Williams has traditionally placed a high value on the arts without exactly pursuing the disciplines to the level of more specialized institutions, like Bard or Oberlin, except perhaps in the visual arts. The ‘62 Center has changed that in respect to theater, and the new facilities, as well as the distinguished faculty who have been hired to go with it, like Omar Sangare, the brilliant Polish playwright, poet, and actor, have attracted the sort of students who might otherwise have chosen Yale or Tisch. The Williams community, Berkshire residents, and whoever decides to make the trip, can expect great things in the future. Music, while very much a Cinderella in terms of physical plant, considering the problematic acoustics of Brooks-Rogers and Chapin Hall, is nonetheless richly endowed with talent of the first order, and many of these assets were much in evidence this past weekend in departmental chairman David Kechley (recently awarded an ASCAPlus Award as well as an Aaron Copland Award composer residency from Copland House), cellist-conductor Ronald Feldman, and, on Sunday, David Porter, Harry C. Payne Visiting Professor of Liberal Arts, who is as much a classicist as a musician.
Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata is without a doubt one of the great monuments of American music. It is not heard often, because it is difficult for both the pianist and his audience, and perhaps that is a good thing. It would be a pity if, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it were played too often in unworthy performances. It embodies the highest principles of American thought and American music, and a performance of it should remain a special occasion, as if it were a secular Missa Solemnis.