I was interviewing a musician recently who pointed out, quite rightly, that the unique advantage of a concert, in our present moment of selective and short attention-giving, is that one has to sit and listen for its duration, to hear what somebody else had to say, whether one likes it or not. Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d is the kind of work that one is very grateful to have heard, but less likely to seek out. I confess that if it came on the radio, I possibly wouldn’t have been in the right headspace for so uncomfortable a piece, lasting over an hour, and might have turned it off “for another time” that might never come. So I was glad to be attending a live performance, and to be challenged to enter into the profundities and intensities of its monumental score and Walt Whitman’s 208-line poem, with its many exquisite beauties, and let the overall effect sweep over me. 

Whitman composed his poem in the aftermath of the Civil War to commemorate the death of Lincoln. Eighty years later, Hindemith, after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took up the work to reshape it into music worthy of such a great piece of poetry. Both works magnificently transcend the particular and political, and they furnish a deep exploration of grief and loss. 

The Kansas City Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Charles Bruffy, and the orchestra under Michael Stern did not let up their intensity, even urgency. I especially liked the exciting fugue of movement seven, Lo! Body and Soul, with its evocation of the whole sweep of America, appositely for us sitting there: “far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn”. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. (Hindemith originally dubbed it An American Requiem). Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke spun beautiful, lyrical melodies in a voice that was abundant and true. Scott Hendricks was really feeling it as baritone, with a sense of authentic emotional energy. 

This is emphatically not easy listening, neither musically nor psychologically. Doleful and somber are the words that come most to mind, and although beauty is invoked in the lilacs and the star, and hope in the bird, there is no simple resolution, no apotheosis, no glorious resurrection, to balance out the extraordinary dark sections: the funeral march, the carol to death, the evocation of the battle corpses. What there is, what we can hope for, is the return of the cycle of life in the spring. The restrained, spare ending cast a spell, a fitting end to a thought-provoking work. 

That was not the only piece of the evening which recalled Whitman’s work. Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, Op.7 was a delightful curtain-opener, vivaciously played and triumphantly ended. Haydn’s Symphony no. 96 in D major, “Miracle” was the central work of the program. Of course, a symphony orchestra can’t really pretend to be a chamber orchestra, but I thought, at times, a little more levity was required. The gravitational pull seemed too strong; Haydn calls out for more buoyancy.