By Mike Telin
CLEVELAND — Enjoying the natural beauty of Lake Erie, the smallest of the five Great Lakes by volume, has always been part of composer Margaret Brouwer’s life: she grew up spending summers at her family’s lakeside cottage in Huron, Ohio. But when dangerous levels of algae blooms in the lake’s western basin caused a water crisis in Toledo in 2014, the ensuing national conversation about environmental pollution and the state of the country’s drinking water became the source of inspiration for Brouwer’s latest composition.
Her “environmental oratorio,” Voice of the Lake, received its premiere on Nov. 12 at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts. Conductor Domenico Boyagian led the fifteen instrumentalists of Brouwer’s Blue Streak Ensemble, the eighty singers of the Oberlin Musical Union, the sixteen voices of the Cleveland Institute of Music Children’s Choir, and a vocal quartet in an eloquent performance that left the audience with much to ponder.
Brouwer wrote her own libretto for Voice of the Lake, incorporating poetry by David Adams and transcripts from public record documents that bring to life “the struggle between the recreational and natural joys of Lake Erie and the commercial, agricultural, and political issues that threaten its ecological health” (from the composer’s website).
The oratorio falls into four parts. After a shimmering, quasi-minimalist instrumental introduction capturing the motion of the lake over gentle chord progressions, “At the Lake” is a joyful account of the ways people experience Lake Erie. The soprano soloist sings “Listen to the waves wash away my cares.” The children excitedly cry “Let’s go swimming.” A fisherman sings about the pleasures of his work. Then the music turns urgent as the bass soloist dampens everyone’s spirits with his announcement of an algae bloom. An extended, virtuosic percussion solo brings on a storm that sends the children scurrying inside.
In Part Two, after a foreboding orchestral introduction, the bass calls to order a public hearing on the question of dumping dredged soil from the Cuyahoga River directly into the lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are in favor while concerned citizens are against it. The mezzo-soprano intones a letter from Congresswoman Marcia Fudge expressing concern for the eleven million people who get their drinking water from the Lake. Representing the Engineers, the tenor sings that the EPA’s tests are unreliable, the lake is the highway on which commerce flows, and this is the cheapest way to dispose of waste. The soprano laments what she’s hearing, the quartet sings “How can you dismiss the tests of the EPA?,” and loud orchestral chords ring down the curtain on Part Two.
Orchestral bird and lake sounds introduce Part Three, in which the soprano sings about the thoughts and fears that disturb her sleep. Orchestral arpeggios introduce a beautiful lullaby from the mezzo-soprano. Powerful videos — panoramic views, algae blooms, disturbing images of pollution sources, and visuals of various solutions, like no-till farming to retain topsoil and fertilizers — accompany the mezzo-soprano’s “Buckets of Perch” and the soprano’s “Listen to the Lake.” A long, melodic orchestral passage ends Part Three.
A stunning oboe solo introduces Part Four, “Sunrise on the Lake.” The children run back onstage and the soprano and mezzo-soprano sing “I hope the children can swim today.” They respond “Can we swim? Can we make lemonade with fresh water? Is it clear, or full of gross, slimy green?” The Musical Union singers repeat the phrase, “It’s our treasure — it’s in trouble.”
Singing with a focused, round sound that carried clearly into the hall, soprano Angela Mitchell pulled high notes out of nowhere. Mezzo-soprano Merav Eldan brought lush, warm, full-bodied tone to the lullaby. With great diction in the face of tongue-twisters (“toxicity” and “sediment”), tenor Brian Skoog’s account of the Army Engineers was fittingly arrogant. And bass Bryant Bush sang with a muscular but not overpowering sound full of colors.
Prepared by Gregory Ristow, the Oberlin Musical Union pulled off some tricky entrances with few pitches to grab onto. And the CIM Children’s Choir, directed by Jennifer Call, was wonderfully playful. The Blue Streak players were top-notch both as soloists and an ensemble, and conductor Boyagian was completely in command of the score, inspiring confidence in his musicians. Coordination between instrumentalists, choruses, and soloists was excellent.
Brouwer’s text, in simple, plain language, conveys the severity of the lake’s situation. She doesn’t shy away from words not often heard in classical oratorio, like “gross” and “slimy,” and she incorporates Adams’ poetry to full effect.
Throughout the hour-long work, the music never overpowered the vocal lines, allowing Brouwer to deliver the message of Voice of the Lake. But the consistently beautiful music doesn’t always reflect the urgency of that message.
Still, the message Brouwer’s piece delivers is one that needs to be heard. Perhaps this oratorio could be turned into a chamber opera.
Mike Telin is executive editor of ClevelandClassical.com and team-teaches “Introduction to Music Criticism” at Oberlin College.