In his program notes for “Stranger,” Nico Muhly writes that he “almost always” prefers prose to poetry as a composer; setting prose “offers a more oblique entry-point into the text.” I find his use of the word “oblique” interesting here, as prose is often far more direct in its context: A journal article is written by academics for readers (usually also academics). A letter is written by a wife and sent to her husband. A petition is signed by community members and addressed to their local and national representatives. 

Dramaturgically, these are some of the least oblique dynamics compared to how quickly akimbo poetry can become in terms of narrator, subject, and audience (Exhibit A: “Erlkönig”). Musically, however, the field of play is vast. With its own innate musicality, setting verse can at times be a matter of pharmaceuticals, filling the prescription written out by the poet (Exhibit A: “Erlkönig”). There are, of course, shades of gray: Plenty of composers have found ways of setting the same texts while creating vastly different musical landscapes (Exhibit A: Golda Schultz on “Erlkönig”). But, with Muhly, it’s far more interesting to see him change the game rather than cleave to the rules. 

Articles like this, straight to your inbox

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

“Stranger,” written for Nicholas Phan and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, is a lucid and lustrous septet loosely arranged around a question posed in the first song of the cycle: “Is it possible to recover and interpret the past?” This is adapted from a 2015 Historical Archaeology article, “Fragments of the Past: Archaeology, History, and the Chinese Railroad Workers of North America,” and while Muhly’s slight edit creates a Britten-like musical line of scrupulous intimacy, the original line (written by Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin) speaks even further to the heart of this cycle: “Is it possible to employ new methodologies of interpretation, beyond the traditionally historical, to recover and interpret the past?” 

For Phan, the son of Greek and Chinese immigrants, seeing beyond the traditionally historical carries added meaning as an operatic tenor. In an interview with VAN last year on anti-Asian racism in classical music, he mentioned that, despite a specialization in Britten on recording and in concert, he has never been cast in one of the composer’s operas. “Being biracial, I don’t experience things the same way as people who have full Asian heritage and faces experience it sometimes,” he said at the time. “But the way it constantly manifests itself is…in this question that presents itself with full Asian singers that people ask: Are they capable of doing this thing that is artistic and expressive?

“Stranger,” an object lesson in new methodologies of interpretation, answers that question with a resounding, Joycean “yes.” Britten’s own connective thread through his operas—the stakes of being an outsider in a hyper-codified society—is picked up here in Muhly’s texts, which include an oral history interview with Ellis Island emigré Rose Breci, a dispatch from an anonymous Lower East Side tenement-dweller published in the Jewish Daily Forward, an open letter to President Grover Cleveland and the United States Congress against the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants, and—most powerful of the texts—an 1879 letter from Boston merchant Wong Ar Chong to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, sent just a few years before the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act:

“In your Declaration of Independence it is asserted that all men are born free and equal; it is understood by the civilized world that the United States of America is a free country, but I fear there is a backward step being taken by the government. The Honorable Senator [James G. Blaine, a Republican from Maine who was a vocal supporter of Chinese exclusion] calls us heathens, but I should judge from the tone of his letter that he was somewhat lacking in Christian charity. Let him look at the fire in Chicago and yellow fever in New Orleans, and he will find Chinamen giving as much, according to their means, as any other people. You go against the principles of George Washington, you go against the American flag, and you act in conflict with Christian charity and principle.” 

Muhly avoids reprimand or rage in his setting of this text (contrast this with Ruth Crawford Seeger’s 1933 setting of Hsi Tseng Tsiang’s “Chinaman, Laundryman”), instead creating a steady, Philip Glass-y pizzicato rhythm in the violins that carries the methodical rebuttal of Chong’s letter. Viola and cello underline key phrases—“backward step,” “lacking in Christian charity,” “as any other people”—like annotations. The strings come together as Phan invokes George Washington, delivering us into a 90-second setting of Leviticus 19:34 that serves as a coda for Chong: “The stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Phan’s deceptively halcyon tenor—clear and crystalline, but able, on a dime, to reflect the explosive storms of human experience—is an ideal vehicle for the emotional capaciousness that Muhly gives his texts. Closing out “Stranger” with two letters written by wives to their deployed husbands during World War II (a departure from the ideas of exclusion and isolation, but also a counterpoint in hearing friendly words sent to two people isolated in foreign settings), Phan’s tenor weaves itself into a lavender haze of unconditional love and unencumbered longing, accented by a holy minimalism in Brooklyn Rider’s accompaniment. At times the quartet arches into silence save for the overtones. The closing piece reminds us, as history snakes around itself, that what we are invariably left with in any era are people looking to connect. 

In that spirit of connection, “Stranger” isn’t a standalone recording. Phan is joined by Reginald Mobley and pianist Lisa Kaplan for Muhly’s “Lorne Ys My Likinge,” a setting of one of the 15th-century Chester Mystery Plays (also the source for Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde”) that showcases the easy companionability between Phan’s tenor and Mobley’s clarion, clear-eyed countertenor. The album is rounded out with “Impossible Things,” Muhly’s sidelining of prose in favor of poetry (here, the works of early 20th-century Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, in translation by Daniel Mendelsohn). Making full use of chamber orchestra The Knights, led by Brooklyn Rider co-founders Colin and Eric Jacobsen, Muhly finds oblique angles within the musicality of Cavafy’s poetry that mirror the liminal space afforded in “Stranger.” 

Going from Muhly’s holy secularity directly into the gushing orchestrations of Ralph Vaughan Williams is a bit like moving from ice water back into the sauna. As if to underscore this point, Michael Waldron and the London Choral Sinfonia close out their latest album with Classic FM stalwart “The Lark Ascending,” which feels about as unloaded a statement as 20-something fashion influencers hailing the rise of leggings with stirrups to those who lived through the early ’90s. I’m willing to accept it, however (and, to the Sinfonia’s credit, the choral-violin arrangement lets some of the air out of Vaughan Williams’s tires), in exchange for the composer’s “Five Mystical Songs,” which opens the same album. Here, soloist Roderick Williams sounds as ideally suited to the work’s composer as Phan does to Britten. Williams’s baritone conveys the restraint and austerity that we often forget to afford Vaughan Williams when we see him through pastoral-colored glasses, cushioning it with a velvety phrasing and articulation. The second of Vaughan Williams’s Mystical Songs, “I Got Me Flowers,” stems from George Herbert’s 17th-century poem, “Easter,” leading a simple narrative of bringing flowers to a meeting, only for the speaker to find that their intended companion had left hours earlier, at dawn, a more ecumenical gaze. It’s similar, in this way, to Muhly’s “Lorne Ys My Likinge,” in which Marys Magdalene, Jacob, and Salome arrive at Jesus’s tomb, only to find it empty in the wake of his resurrection.

The real force behind this new recording, however, is in a rediscovered score by Lennox Berkeley, who studied with Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel before sharing a home in Suffolk with Britten. (Britten appears to have viewed the cohabitation as plainly platonic; Berkeley, as some biographers have suggested, was hoping for more.) The friendship frayed once Britten and Peter Pears moved to the United States in 1939, however the influence of the one composer remained, like smoke caught in wool, with the other. “Variations on a Hymn by Orlando Gibbons” lets some of that scent loose. Commissioned by Britten for the fifth Aldeburgh Festival in 1952 and written for Pears as the tenor soloist, Berkeley spins the 17th-century composer’s “My Lord, My Life, My Love” into a quicksilver choral work, opening with a string quartet that mirrors the viol consorts of Gibbons’s era, before quickly moving into a full-throated prelude. Within the plush folds of the orchestrations, however, remains an ascetic melancholy.

At times, Berkeley seems to veer between Vaughan Williams and Britten, the text of Gibbons’s hymn inviting a sense of unabashed passion to augment the tunnel-vision of holy devotion: “I cannot live if thou remove: Thou are my joy, my all. My only sun to cheer the darkness where I dwell, the best and only true delight my song hath found to tell,” sings the chorus in a no-holds-barred opening variation. But Berkeley quickly begins to play with configurations between orchestra, choir, and tenor soloist (here Andrew Staples), as if arranging tables for a wedding reception and playing out a series of possibilities ranging from the grandiose to the unsettling. When Staples sings “to thee in very heaven, the Angels owe their bliss; to thee the Saints, whom thou hast called where perfect pleasure is,” he sounds more Peter Quint than penitent. His final reiteration of the opening lines, sung initially by the chorus in unblinking reverence and adoration, is a cautious supplication. He’s aware of divine majesty—but also of divine malice. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.