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.

O Sapientia/Steal Away

The highlight of the newly released Avalon String Quartet CD on Albany is O Sapientia/Steal Away by Hayes Biggs. Hayes was a colleague of mine in the Columbia doctoral composition program. I have long felt his music deserves wider recognition; perhaps this disc can help make that happen.

The compound title of the piece refers to its sources: Hayes’s own motet on the Advent antiphon “O Sapientia” (“O Wisdom that proceeded from the mouth of the Most High, Come and show us the way of prudence.”) and the spiritual “Steal Away” (“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus”).  These are woven into a compelling narrative that plays continuously. The piece begins with darkly charged chords, starting from e-flat minor, which frame more lyrical music, including the “Sapientia” material. A scherzo interrupts, “obsessed” as the composer puts it, with repeated notes, but also including witty references to similar gestures in Beethoven and Mozart quartets. The material of the first part returns, yielding to a disconsolate meditation on “Steal Away”, hauntingly tentative at first; later, more lyrically extended. The piece ends with tender, high register harmonies, imbued with the intervalic colors of the “Steal Away” melody – essentially tonal harmonies, like the piece’s opening, but seen now in a very different light, a world away from the intense, brooding sounds with which the piece began.

The style of the piece is not easily categorized, perhaps occupying a spot a bit to the left of late Britten. Such comparisons are inadequate; Hayes’s language is his own. I found the form of the piece engrossing, the harmonies varied and telling, the string writing idiomatic – and the emotional content powerful.

There are so many fine young string quartets these days that the Avalon may have not yet come to your attention. It should. They play the Biggs piece with passion and precision, sensitively varied colors, and impeccable pacing.

This disc includes music of interest by David Macbride, Stephen Gryc and Ethan Wickman, but it is Sapientia that most strongly continues to claim my attention.