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Miami Music Festival debuts “Two Poems of Hyam Plutzik,” at New World Symphony Center

The combining of music and poetry seems the most natural thing in the world. After all, poetry is musical by nature, plumbing the music of language in the pure sounds behind the sense of words. Adding actual music could be redundant, the results cloying, or overbearing. Yet, as composer Jeffrey L. Briggs showed in New World Symphony Center in Miami recently, all concerns vanish when poet and composer are aligned.

Briggs’ “Two Poems of Hyam Plutzik,” for orchestra and narrator, led off an evening of diverse performances during the Miami Music Festival, a month of ambitious music performed by student musicians on the cusp of professional careers. Michael Rossi, founder and artistic director of the festival, took the podium for “Two Poems of Hyam Plutzik.” Alberto Carvalho, stood nearby to recite the narration. A distinguished figure, with salt-and-pepper hair, Carvalho is well regarded as a speaker, yet had never performed in front of an orchestra before. But his timing was impeccable, his voice stentorian. By day he is the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Under Rossi’s baton, the piece flowed beautifully. At times Briggs’ music evokes a Stravinsky-style modernism, at others the tense anxious mood of Bernard Hermann’s work scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense. Despite featuring two distinct poems, the piece has an overarching unity. It never sounds piecemeal or episodic. Briggs’ also called up sounds of weather—thunder, rising wind, powerful storms, the emergence of the sun onto a scene still wet with rain—using nothing but the instruments of the orchestra.

The tack taken by Briggs’ complements the mood of the two Hyam Plutzik poems; (a version of the piece may be heard online at the Hyam Plutzik website, http://www.hyamplutzikpoetry.com/recordings/.) The elemental aspects of the music matched a similar tone in the poems. In the same way, both music and poem embody lightness and a sense of grace, no matter how potent the themes might be.

“I wanted to set this poetry to music for many years because of the gentle power, vivid imagery, and cunning eloquence of his verse,” Briggs said. “But I didnʼt want to present the poetry as traditional song because clarity of meaning and impact of ideas were overriding considerations. It was too big a risk to obscure the words with melodic line or performance technique.”

The writing and presentation of music to accompany contemporary poetry is not unusual. Some recent famous examples include composer Steve Reich, who wrote The Desert Music to accompany three poems by William Carlos Williams. Former U.S poet laureate Robert Pinsky has read his poetry backed by an improvisational jazz band, referring to himself in this realm as a ‘non-singing vocalist.’  And in the fall of 2013, Cornelius Eady was commissioned by the Poetry Society of America to set the poems of Sterling Brown to music with his own band, Rough Magic, performing the songs at Cooper Union’s Great Hall honoring iconic Black poets of the 20th Century.

Hyam Plutzik is an important midcentury poet (a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist) whose work faded from public memory after his death in 1962 at the age of 50. Over the past fifteen years, interest in the poet and his work has slowly percolated back toward the surface of American culture, and with good reason. Admired by contemporaries like Anthony Hecht, Gerald Stern, and Ted Hughes, Plutzik taught for many years at the University of Rochester, where a library and a reading series are named in his honor.

The first of the two poems that inspired Briggs is “The Equation.” Imagining scientific knowledge in the form of a snake, “crueler than marble,” it ends with the ascendance of implacable science, while nodding toward the yearning human spirit: “There by its skin a snake rears beaten in copper./ It will not acknowledge the incense on your altars,/ Nor hear at night in your room the weeping…”

The second poem, “Jim Desterland,” is similarly tough-minded, but with the possibility of transcendence. A solitary angler hears “the voice you will never hear/ Filling the crannies of the air.” In his brain “the little doors” swing open to admit the voice to sweep through him like “the bellowing of ruin/ The surf upon a thousand shores…/ … all the waves of all the seas.” And then the little doors swing shut, and he is again a man fishing alone on calm waters. As he looks around, at the trees on the shore, the swell of the sea, he has been transformed. He now knows the music of the spheres, and “the sound of all the atoms whirling round,” a sound and a knowledge available to anyone for whom “the little doors swing wide.”

In the lobby at evening’s end, Briggs’ pleasure and satisfaction was evident by the glow on his face. “I have been reading Plutzik’s poetry all my adult life,” he said. “I wanted to pay homage to it.  I tried to use the orchestra as a kind of video screen upon which to project musical images as an accompaniment for the narration.”

The last piece on the concert, played impressively by The Miami Music Festival orchestra was Also Sprach Zarathustra, by Strauss, giving the audience a chance enjoy Tone Poems that were inspired by literature, yet written 120 years apart.


Guest blogger, Chauncey Mabe, is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel, and writes on wide-ranging topics related to the arts, in regional South Florida and beyond. He can be reached at cmabe55@yahoo.com.