American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and British tenor Ian Bostridge combined poetry and classical music to kick off the second concert of the 2019-20 Candler Concert Series. With about 350 people in attendance, the innovative performance left a strong and touching impression on the audience. 

The Oct. 18 concert was performed in two parts. During the first part, Mehldau and Bostridge presented “The Folly of Desire,” a musical composition based on famous poems by William Blake, William Butler Yeats and William Shakespeare. The second part was their performance of the traditional song collection “Dichterliebe” (“The Poet’s Love”) by Robert Schumann. These two halves of the evening were united by a common theme — human love and adoration — since all of the poems and the lyrics related to confessions of love.  

This special art form of singing poems rather than reciting them afforded the performers more artistic freedom to interpret and express the emotions of the verses. During the concert, Bostridge controlled the pace, pitch and tone of each word, and used hand gestures and facial expressions to emphasize certain phrases. This method was particularly impressive for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147 and Sonnet 75; Bostridge extended the last two words of each line in Sonnet 147, while he shortened the last two words of Sonnet 75. These techniques added a layer of depth and interpretation to the music. 

The poems progressed through a certain order, from the lower bodily desire to higher spiritual love. The poem “the boys I mean are not refined” by E. E. Cummings plays with crass words like “tit,” “masturbate” and “piss.” The poem was even originally declined for publishing. The vocal presentation of the poem was a rejection of elitist publishing standards. Bostridge and Mehldau performed in an honest and truthful artistic manner, presenting this language authentically and maintaining the more subtle expressions of other poems as well. Cumming’s poem was followed with Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” which was stylistically full of grandeur and elegance. The eloquence helped create a didactic tone, while verses like the ones from Blakes’ “The Four Zoas” sounded more inspirational: “Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy.”

The performance continued with Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,” a song comprised of several smaller German songs that are tangentially related to each other in their expressions of the feelings of a sorrowful lover. As shown in the translation of the concert program, the words used in these songs were often simple, but the emotions they generated, with the help of vocals and music, were surprisingly powerful. 

Because of the enthusiasm from the audience, Bostridge and Mehldau performed three 20th-century blues songs as an encore to the performance. 

By the end of the night, Bolstridge and Mehldau had delivered an extremely successful concert that took the audience into a complex journey of human love and compassion. Even more, the duo created a space for empathy and contemplation.

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