Fanfare … for Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music

Celebrating Wendell Berry in Music was reviewed in the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of Fanfare magazine.  The review is reprinted here with permission.

A. MAXFIELD For the Future1. I love the passing light2. Here where the World is being made3.Stay Home2. The Little Stream Sings3. Not again in this flesh4. A gracious Sabbath stood here5. The Seed is in the Ground3. The Necessity of Faith4. Whatever is foreseen in joy3 — Wendell Berry (spkr); 1,3,5Brady R. Allred, cond; 1,3,5Salt Lake Voc Artists; 2,4Rex Kocherhans (bar); 1Katie Davis Henderson (fiddle); 2Andrew Maxfield (pn); 2,4,5Aubrey Woods, 4,5Alex Woods (vns); 4,5Claudine Bigelow (va); 1,2Nicole Pinnell, 4,5Michelle Kesler (vcs) — TANTARA 0317 (43:34)


This is a heartfelt tribute to the work of the poet-farmer Wendell Berry. In 2012, composer Andrew Maxfield visited Berry in the poet’s Kentucky homestead, and recorded a number of poems read by the poet himself. These form the spoken tracks here which preface Maxfield’s settings. The performances of Maxfield’s works are by the 40-strong chamber choir the Salt Lake Vocal Artists, an ensemble of preternatural tightness, and the excellent baritone Rex Kocherhans for the solo numbers. Apparently the recording sessions were blighted by extra percussion, the sound of rain against the roof of the recording venue; no trace of that in the beautifully finished recording that is presented here.

Berry’s poetry speaks of a return to grass-roots values of neighborliness, and caring for the environment we live in. The simplicity of these aims, and the artful simplicity of Berry’s writing, is mirrored in Maxfield’s pieces.

These recitations of the poems are delivered at the perfect pace and with a proper sense of depth of meaning. After a resonant reading of For the Future, the choral setting is rhythmically vital, accompanied only by the stamping of the singers’ feet and the careful addition of a solo fiddle. The end is miraculous, a perfect choral diminuendo into nothing, like a gentle extinguishing of the light.

The next poem, I love the passing light, is set for baritone and piano trio, the strings adding an extra stratum of sepia to the poetic Rückblick. There is a practicality, an economy of expression, heard in both the text of Stay Home and in its music. Maxfield’s setting of Stay Home is again for baritone and piano trio: he withholds the entry of the strings effectively, before allowing them a magical moment to meditate on the song melody. The string playing is particularly fine in Stay Home. Scored for baritone and, this time, string quartet, The Necessity of Faith is infiltrated by a Copland-like sense of openness; congruent with this is the almost folkish nature of the melodic line.

The beautifully understated spirituality found in the text of Here where the World is being made(with its poignant second line, “no human hand required”) is reflected in Maxfield’s setting. The calm demeanor of the music, the female voices initially carrying the argument over a hummed male voice background is most effective, and the standard of the performance is splendid. Listen to the choral enunciation of “ache” at “the ache of human love”. It is perfectly judged, and perfectly captured, too, in the pristine recording. Choral textures are excellently balanced by conductor Brady R. Allred.

The incredibly telling text to the poem The little stream sings, whose seemingly harmless title seems to point to a Schubertian innocence but in fact belies a poem that talks of Death and “our freedom to kill”; “there is no death,” we are told, on the morning of Christ’s resurrection. It is an incredibly deep poem, perhaps reflecting that the stream, which is “the water of life,” holds the key in its natural innocence. The Salt Lake Vocal Artists trace the emotional trajectory of Maxfield’s remarkable setting with rapt concentration. “Death is our illusion” they sing, and somehow, we believe them. The poem Not again in this flesh is another reflection on mortality; its setting, for baritone and string quartet, is superbly judged by Maxfield, the poem’s trajectory tracked on a very deep emotional level. Kocherhans’ legato and his sweet high register (used very effectively here) underpins the work’s aura of reflection.

Scored for choir and string quartet, the tender A gracious Sabbath stood contains some outstanding violin playing, particularly from violinist Alex Woods. From the pithy The Seed in in the Ground, Maxfield grows a five-minute choral setting that is marked by its profundity as well as, in performance, its supremely balanced textures.

The way the poet delivers the final phrase of his poem Whatever is foreseen in joy with such artless simplicity and straight truth that it feels impossible for any setting to do it justice (the final lines are “When we work well, a Sabbath mood / Rests on our day, and finds it good”). The setting begins by isolating the word “joy” (not, in fact the first word of the poem, but the key one) before the lines unfold. The syllabic chordal passages have a tremendous tender sense of wonder to them: “Great work is done while we sleep” says the poet, and Maxfield’s setting reflects the mystic side of night. The setting ends with a radiant choral explosion on the word “joy” itself, replacing that sense of straight truth the poet brought; an interesting, and stimulating, juxtaposition of readings of the same text.

If pushed, I would express a preference for Maxfield’s choral settings over the solo vocal items. The choral pieces seem to penetrate further into Berry’s richly layered emotions, while there is, perhaps, a touch of the musical theater to Rex Kocherhans’ delivery.

This disc presents a wonderful introduction to the world of Wendell Berry, supported by an expert booklet. A most fascinating release. Colin Clarke