MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Shawn Kirchner and Gerard Manley Hopkins

Shawn Kirchner

Shawn Kirchner

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and their music director Grant Gershon can always be counted on to offer innovative and thoughtful programming — the right blend of classics, unfairly forgotten pieces, and fresh commissions — but they’ve outdone even themselves in designing the grand finale concert of this 50th-anniversary season, titled Today, Tomorrow, & Beyond.

It’s actually mind-blowing; a piece that was commissioned only two seasons ago from Gabriela Lena Frank and world premieres of music by Esa-Pekka Salonen, David Lang, Francisco Núñez, and the LAMC’s own Shawn Kirchner, who sings with the ensemble and is their current composer-in-residence.

I recently interviewed Shawn to talk about his latest composition. (I’ll post my essay for the program as we get closer to the actual concert date.) In the wake of the choral cycle Plath Songs, which he composed last year for LAMC, Shawn has immersed himself in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The result is an ambitious new “choral sonata” he’s calling Inscapes.

Shawn explained to me that Hopkins came from a family of artists “and was actually quite sensate in his perceptions of things because he was trained as a painter. Eleanor Ruggles, who wrote one of the definitive biographies of Hopkins, describes the inscape as the manifestation of Being itself. So in the whole cycle I’m trying to connect with that level of awe in perceiving a part of nature, a tree or a kingfisher. These aren’t just pretty pictures of nature; they’re all part of the ‘royal perception’ of the intrinsic patterns of being.”

Alfred William Garrett, William Alexander Comyn Macfarlane, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; photo by Thomas C. Bayfield, 1866

Alfred William Garrett, William Alexander Comyn Macfarlane, and Gerard Manley Hopkins; photo by Thomas C. Bayfield, 1866

By lovely coincidence, Helen Vendler has a fine essay in a recent issue of the London Review of Books. She reviews Oxford’s new edition of the poet’s correspondence — two volumes (some 499 letters) that are part of its Collected Works series, which is projected to run to eight volumes when complete.

An early convert to Hopkins’s poetry, Vendler remarks that the letters opened up an entirely new perspective:

After reading the poems I went to the poet’s correspondence, and met another Hopkins, attractive in his successive enthusiasms and his incorruptible honesty, but immensely strange in his intransigent literary morals.
[…]
In letters, Hopkins always spoke his mind with trenchancy and purpose, even to the point of endangering his ties to his correspondents. His enlivening wit sprang frequently from the pages, as did his sardonic commentary on aspects of Victorian language and culture.
[…]
The subjects that interested Hopkins were chiefly intellectual ones; even his most sensuous responses to the natural world were immediately referred to the intellect, which, in the poetry, meant referral to philosophical or theological thought.

Filed under: American music, choral music, poetry

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