- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

A clash of artistic styles turned a midday concert Thursday into a premiere of note. The District premiere of "Yes Is a Pleasant Country " at the National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle in Northwest paired tenor Peter Joshua Burroughs with pianist Carlos Cesar Rodriguez.
However, the duo's approach to the music wasn't the main attraction.
More intriguing were the origins of the piece. Composer Jack Gottlieb married 13 poems by famed poet and iconoclast E.E. Cummings to his own traditionally based music.
The crisp, if brief, concert the esteemed poet was not known for lengthy works captured the artist's mercurial style without sacrificing potency.
Even the sanctuary setting became a testament to stylistic differences stained-glass splendor versus the typographically challenged poetic innovator.
The concert, part of the church's Music at Midday series, highlighted a piece first performed in 1998 at New York's Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion.
The venue's acoustics would challenge any performer. The musicians opted to play at floor level, leaving the sanctuary stage and its overhead dome behind. Still, the sanctuary clung to each note like a departing friend. The duo wisely left enough room between the notes to make the space work for, not against, them.
The performers treated the song cycle with respect, tweaking the unusual lyrics only in minor moments. Another approach to the eclectic material might have come off as heavy-handed, as if drawing too much attention to the artistic gamble.
The 13-song cycle was both short and easily digested. Those looking for mellifluous rhymes or classically formed lyrics, however, would have been disappointed.
Two poems lasted but two lines. Mr. Burroughs dragged one out for all its worth, then rushed through the second as if it were but an afterthought. Both approaches satisfied.
On the longer pieces, such as "The Moon Looked Into My Window," Mr. Burroughs cradled the notes without slipping into melodrama. The tenor's background in opera, including his Washington Opera debut three years ago in "The Crucible," gave the presentation a robust flavor.
His small gestures, in alignment with a face beaming in apparent joy, lent the material the theatrical push it deserved.
"If Freckles Were Lovely, and Day Was Night" inspired a childlike glee in both performers. Only a few songs later, "When Any Mortal (Even the Most Odd)" spoke of spirituality in humble tones.
The tenor's performance, aside from his peeking too often at the words before him, was an impeccable display of discipline and warmth.
In turn, Mr. Rodriguez's piano work showcased his delicate approach. The pianist appeared less animated than his singing partner, but his notes rose and fell with equal precision, and he never overshadowed the prose. He took great pains to paint the low, isolated notes, stretching and pulling them until they filled the sanctuary.
At times, the poet's idiosyncratic patterns flattened the music, but such instances were rare. More often, Mr. Burroughs found the melody amid the words.
The fading piano notes that brought "Guilt Is the Cause of More Disasters" to a close added texture to the source poem, reason enough for the marriage of music and poetry the afternoon so bravely displayed.


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