Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

Shende Sounds Hopeful Note With Longfellow Poems

Story posted April 04, 2008


It isn't easy to classify Assistant Professor of Music Vineet Shende's music, but there is something deeply familiar in his lush musical phraseology. Whether composing for orchestra, chorus, or chamber ensemble, his works are characterized by colorful orchestrations and dynamic sweeps of mood and feeling. He often mingles classical and world traditions, creating works that span musical genres and create a kind of lyrical narrative.

Maine audiences will be treated to what may be his most layered and ambitious work to date on April 13, 2008, when the Portland Symphony Orchestra (PSO) premieres Three Longfellow Poems.

"There are a lot of wonderful Longfellow poems that are relevant for a modern-day audience," says Shende, who has been working on the score for several years. "I find in them reflections of my feelings about the state of the world, politics, and culture. Sometimes my works are inspired by dreams, others are based on poems I've read. I suppose everything I write has some kind of extramusical significance — though hopefully listeners don't really need to know what they are to enjoy the music."

With Shende's work, however, uncovering the extramusical context is half the fun.

Student Singers Join Symphony

Three Longfellow Poems contains a complex choral score that will be premiered by the combined voices of the Bowdoin Chamber Choir and Oratorio Chorale, a 60-member auditioned chorus. Shannon Chase, visiting assistant professor of music, has been rehearsing the Bowdoin singers since the fall. She describes the work as " a very sophisticated piece of 21st-century composition. It includes a complex tonal and rhythmic language that requires a lot of independence from performers. Our students are taking to it really nicely, they've come a long way."

Shende provided the choir with MIDI files created on a computer that emulate what the orchestra will sound like, making it possible for the student singers to combine with the chorus and orchestra with only a few rehearsals prior to performance. "This work will have orchestra, soloist, and adult chorus," notes Chase. "Mixing our students in with adult and professional performers has been a very positive thing for them."

Shende says he turned to Bowdoin's famous son for the textual framework for the cycle, finding in Longfellow's works, "Daybreak," "The Warning," and "The Occultation of Orion," an arc whose theme is hope born, hope lost, and hope restored.

"'Daybreak' describes a Maine sunrise, and is full of a sense of beginning and optimism," says Shende. "'The Warning,' is about the terrible destruction that can result when all hope is removed and retells the Biblical story of the hopeless and imprisoned Samson's suicidal destruction of the temple of the Philistines. He puts his hands on the two pillars that support the temple and knocks it over, killing 3,000 people. Even though Longfellow was writing metaphorically about slavery at the time, it seemed eerily prescient of September 11.

"There is resolution in the final poem, which talks about the story of Orion and Diana. After Orion, wounded by Oenopion, vows to take his revenge out on all the beasts of the forest, he is confronted by Diana. Realizing the destructive effects of his aggression, he renounces his violent ways and ascends into the heavens. The poem's last lines are: 'Forevermore, forevermore/The reign of violence is o'er!'"

A central motif, or musical phrase, representing the theme of "hope" runs throughout the work. It begins with the clarinet line in the first movement, then spreads to all sections of the orchestra, much as the wind in Longfellow's poem, which emerges in the sea and moves through the Maine countryside.

In the second movement, in which hope is lost, the intervals are compressed and the line is inverted. A central choral fugue builds in tension, as Sampson exerts his might on the pillars of the temple. In the last movement, based on "The Occultation of Orion," the hope motif returns, with the duration of notes more sustained and solid.

The final poem contains rich celestial imagery, which Shende used as a fascinating point of departure for one of his extramusical inspirations.

"I decided to take the philosophical concept of the music of the spheres and actually figure out what that would sound like," explains Shende. "So I took the radii and orbits and distances from the sun of the first six planets and their moons and used them to develop the corresponding pitches and rhythms of instruments in the orchestra.

"Hopefully," he continues, "it will simulate their orbit patterns. There are also instruments for each planet: Mercury is assigned to glockenspiel and solo violin; Venus is the flute and harp; Earth is oboe and marimba; Mars is the trumpet and chimes; Jupiter is the majestic trombones and cellos; and Saturn is double-basses and bassoons."

The 35-minute work is scored for soprano soloist, choir and orchestra, and will feature the 90 mighty, combined voices of the Bowdoin Chamber Choir and Oratorio Chorale — both of which previously have performed works by Shende. The soprano soloist is Elizabeth Weigle who, with guitarist Daniel Lippel, recently recorded Shende's Sonetos de amor for Focus Records. Paul Polivnick guest conducts the PSO.

"I believe that music is the most pure form of emotional expression we have," reflects Shende. "It's a physical phenomenon that creates an emotional response." Combine that with the lush, stirring words of a great poet, and the results should be hopeful indeed.

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