Hayes Biggs at Manhattan School

I was in NYC last night for a program at Manhattan school featuring two impressive pieces by my Columbia classmate Hayes Biggs – the premiere of a song cycle called Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, with Susan Narucki, soprano, and Christopher Oldfather, piano, and a string quartet subtitled O Sapientia/Steal Away. I previously wrote about the quartet here, so in this brief post let me just say the cycle was terrific, sustaining interest over six substantial songs that set a wonderful variety of texts. These included a Psalm excerpt as well as a 17th century metrical version of another Psalm and poems by George Herbert, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Jane Kenyon and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hayes has succeeded in doing something many composers of our generation attempt (but don’t always achieve): to truly integrate tonal materials into a broadly based language that can be dissonant or consonant, triadic or not, as the expressive needs of the moment dictate. This doesn’t involve any lack of rigor – Hayes’s contrapuntal instincts ensure that. There may be some traces of Britten or Ives in the musical language, but the songs struck me as very fresh and personal. The performance was superb, with Susan not just offering a lovely, clear, and true sound, but putting that sound at the service of varied expression and strong emotional impact. I hardly had to refer to the printed program, given the fineness of her diction. Christopher dependably does several impossible things on every page he plays – rhythmic subtleties, perfectly balanced chords, wide-ranging colors, sensitive coordination with his soloist – and all with a minimum of fuss. I want to write more about the songs, but for now here is a snapshot from after the concert, with (L to R) the members of the Avalon String Quartet, Susan Narucki, Hayes Biggs, and Christopher Oldfather.

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