BY JEFFREY PALMER, UNITED STATES CORRESPONDENT
Joyce DiDonato: EDEN
Presented by Princeton University Concerts
Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, Princeton, New Jersey, USA, 1 February
The year was 1890, and the College of New Jersey — now known as Princeton University — decided to build a hall big enough for its body of students. It would be named Alexander Hall, after its donor Harriet Crocker Alexander, and designed by architect William Appleton Potter.
One of the finest examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture in the region, this coalescence of curved lines, arched stained-glass windows, and granite towers overshadowed by stately sycamores was the perfect venue to host a performance of American Grammy- and Olivier Award-winning mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato’s EDEN.
A concert extension of her 2022 album of the same name, Joyce describes EDEN as “an invitation to return to our roots and to explore whether or not we are connecting as profoundly as we can to the pure essence of our being, to create a new EDEN from within and plant seeds of hope for the future”. Under the direction of Bulgarian conductor/violinist Zefira Valova, the superb 24-musician ensemble il Pomo d’Oro has accompanied Joyce on this musical journey, ranging stylistically from the Baroque to the contemporary, in venues across the globe.
As the musicians took their places and the lights dimmed inside Alexander Hall’s Richardson Auditorium, smoke began to swirl across the stage, making even more lifelike the hall’s beautiful mosaic depicting scenes from Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, and we heard the haunting opening strains of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Singing in straight tone the line usually assigned to a solo trumpet, Joyce’s voice was heard emanating from an unknown place in the back of the hall, causing a great deal of spine-tingling in several audience members, myself included, I’m sure. As the piece progressed, she continued to move about and sing from different places in the nearly black hall, making for a beautifully disorienting effect that really did have us all stepping out of time into this EDEN of her creation.
As the next piece began, a new work from the British Academy Award-winning composer Rachel Portman called The First Morning of the World, we finally beheld the singer herself – punkish platinum blonde hair and shimmering silver dress reflecting the beautiful gold and blue light designed by John Torres now bathing the stage:
A musing on what the first morning of the world might have sounded like, the text by American poet Gene Scheer was powerfully sung by Joyce with her usual richness, warmth, and sensitivity to the words.
The remainder of the concert found Joyce centerstage on a platform created by Escenografia Moia, featuring tubular pieces of metal that she gradually put into place to form two large concentric circles. Seated in the middle of the platform, she gave us Gustav Mahler’s Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft! from his Rückert-Lieder – a delicate ode to the fragrance of a lime tree. She then reclined on the platform to let il Pomo d’Oro build a bridge to the 17th-Century section of the concert with Marco Uccellini’s Sinfonia terza, Op. 7.
All was then plunged into red light as the pulsating first strums of Con le stelle in ciel che mai from Biagio Marini’s Scherzi e canzone, Op. 5 resounded through the hall. The metallic circles began to rotate around the platform as Joyce rose to her knees and banged her fists against it to keep time, reminding us that she is no stranger to the dramatic. The expert playing from il Pomo d’Oro paired with Joyce’s florid vocal dynamism made for one of the most memorable examples of Baroque musical mastery I have ever witnessed. This level of intense energy was matched in the next piece, Josef Mysliveček’s Toglierò le sponde al mare from Adamo ed Eva – an oratorio about the Biblical expulsion from Paradise.
From here on out, the program took a gentler turn, with selections from Aaron Copland’s 8 Poems of Emily Dickinson, Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto, and Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Ezio. Highlights from the second half of the concert included il Pomo d’Oro’s stirring rendition of the regal Sonata enharmonica by Giovanni Valentini and Joyce’s gorgeous take on the timeless As With Rosy Steps The Morn from George Frideric Handel’s Theodora – leaving the audience breathless with her gentle tone and effortlessly unobtrusive ornamentation.
The culmination of this journey through EDEN came with Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, another selection from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. As she sang of being dead to the world’s tumult and resting in a quiet realm of love and song, Joyce took the final piece of metal left on stage and added it to complete the smaller of the two rotating circles, thus finishing the work of her creation.
At this point, Joyce addressed the audience for the first time, thanking us for joining her in her EDEN and letting us know that she would be sending us all home with chamomile seeds to plant in our own gardens. She then welcomed the local Princeton Girlchoir Semi-Tones onstage to join her in singing Seeds of Hope – a new piece based on song fragments composed by students she worked with at the Bishop Ramsey School in London. The choir then treated us to a Ukrainian lullaby before Joyce had them sit round her onstage while she spoke to them (and us all) about the importance of creative expression and the power of music. A scene that charmingly reminded me of something out of The Sound Of Music.
The final piece of the evening was the classic Ombra Mai Fu from Handel’s Serse, which Joyce sang while still seated, surrounded by her garden of children. “How could I give a concert about nature without singing about a tree?” she asked the girls before singing.
As I left Alexander Hall and gazed up at myriad stars in the cold, clear February sky, I noticed a quote from Lucretius inscribed on the side of the building: “There is no greater joy than to hold high aloft the serene abodes well bulwarked by the learning of the wise.” In that moment, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to everyone who contributed to the creation of that splendid hall and, of course, to Joyce for encouraging us to continue to learn about and find beauty in the world around us. I then turned to walk across the quiet Princeton University campus, chamomile seeds in hand.
Images supplied. Photo courtesy of Princeton University Concerts; Photo by Andrew Wilkinson.