Lunar Ensemble: Old Text Woven New

I had the pleasure of attending Friday night’s season opening concert by the Lunar Ensemble, a young, virtuosic, and energetic new music ensemble and Ensemble-in-Residence for the Baltimore War Memorial Arts Initiative.  Led by the brilliant Gemma New, a conductor whose talents I witnessed two years ago when we were both fellows at Aspen, the concert offered three viewpoints on combining text and music.

Two of the selections allowed the ensemble’s soprano, Danielle Buonaiuto, to share her remarkable vocal gifts.  Baltimore-based composer Douglas Buchanan’s Prospero Variations was a fantasia on texts from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and showcased Buonaiuto’s dramatic flair in a variety of textures and moods.  Another vocal work, Canadian composer David Passmore’s My Mistress’ Eyes, on Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” sonnets, stood out for its rhythmic nuance, changing timbres, and playful humor.  Passmore was able to immediately capture the mood of the text with succinct and memorable gestures and evocative melodic lines.

The concert began with John Harbison’s Songs America Loves to Sing, an instrumental work pairing solos and canonic treatments of popular American tunes like “Aura Lee”, the “St. Louis Blues”, and the “Anniversary Song” (better known for its birthday function).  What I love about this piece and Harbison’s music generally is that technical prowess is always at the service of expressive intent.  Within his strict framework, Harbison moves from honkey tonk to hymn tunes to hints of Ives with ease and charm.  For me the most striking portion of the work came in his treatment of “Poor Butterfly.”  After a lyrical opening clarinet cadenza (Bravo, Gleb Kanasevich!), the tune emerges in haunting, pale hues, while a subdued clarinet obbligato continues to dance slowly above.

For a different but no less ravishing take on this melody, I recommend Sarah Vaughan’s interpretation here: