The words of a mystical 19th century poet will ring forth in a new setting at 2 p.m. Sunday in Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.
In an adventurous move, the church choir will be joined by 26 musicians from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by BPO Associate Concertmaster Ansgarius Aylward, in performing the Transcendental Sonnets of Kyle Gann, written to poetry by Jones Very.
Gann, a composer and musicologist who teaches at Bard College and wrote for 20 years for the Village Voice, is known for his explorations of microtonal composition. These particular songs, however, are tonal and melodic and at times might remind a listener of Benjamin Britten.
Their unpredictable rhythms are in contrast to the formal words. Writing in the 19th century, Very was looking back to a still earlier style.
“His poetry was written in the style of Shakespeare sonnets,” explained Phil Nicolai, the Unitarian Universalist Church’s music chairman.
Very, born in 1813 in Salem, Mass., was a clergyman who graduated from the Harvard Divinity School and counted among his friends such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. His sonnets are described as intensely pious, many of them focusing on the theme of submitting to the will of God.
“He was spirit-infused,” Nicolai said. “He thought the spirit of God was tapping through him. His poetry was kind of like Holy Writ. He was taken in by Transcendentalists. Emerson helped him publish his book of poetry.” Very’s career was sadly cut short when he suffered a breakdown in 1838. “He burned out,” Nicolai said. “He was a bright star, as it were.”
Gann is expected at the concert. The church has a connection with him: Daniel Bassin, who conducts the University at Buffalo Symphony and is the church’s music director, studied with him.
Both Bassin and Nicolai believe the 35-minute-long “Transcendental Sonnets” will have a lasting place in the 21st century choral repertoire. Nicolai, who sings in the church’s choir, admires the songs’ intricacy and said the music is some of the most difficult that he has sung, he said.
“It’s constantly going back and forth – 7/4, 4/4, 3/4. There are triplets over half notes, triplets over the entire measure.”
Sunday’s performance is the inaugural concert for the Barbara Wagner Music Tribute Fund. Wagner, who was the church’s music director for 50 years, retired last year after suffering a stroke. Bassin succeeded her in August.