Love Recollected: Images Of Passion Seen In ‘Brightness’

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In ‘The Brightness of Light’ by Kevin Puts, soprano Renée Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry chart the love affair and creative passion of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. (Photos by Hilary Scott for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood)
By Leslie Kandell

LENOX, Mass. – Two kinds of program music were on the July 20 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at Tanglewood. Elgar’s Enigma Variations are musical portrayals of the composer’s friends. And The Brightness of Light, a BSO co-commission from Kevin Puts, places the music literally underneath the narrative, with projected images on a screen showing the artistic and personal love affair of Georgia O’Keeffe and the older photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz photographed her – clothed, often – and used his national prominence to promote her work.

[The rolling premiere continues next season with performances at the Colorado Symphony Nov. 15 and 17, and at the National Symphony Nov. 21 and 23. Other commissioners include the University of Texas at Austin, the Eastman School of Music, and Artis-Naples.

Sequences of O’Keeffe’s paintings and charcoals, black-and-white photographs by Stieglitz, envelopes with addresses, and fragments of letters were brought to life by sung excerpts from their professional-to-steamy correspondence. (We’re lucky there was no email. This might might have disappeared.)

The Stieglitz-OKeeffe letters came to life as Gilfry and Fleming sang beneath projected images of their correspondence.

The renowned soprano Renée Fleming joined baritone Rod Gilfry on the darkened stage of the Koussevitzky Shed, singing from the score under projections by Wendall K. Harrington, head of Yale’s projection design department.

Before moving to the Southwest, O’Keeffe lived in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. Stieglitz divorced his wife of 30 years and promptly married O’Keeffe, who was 23 years younger. He eventually had an affair, however, which caused her to have a nervous breakdown and head to the Southwest to work. But they remained friendly: “Taos is in the stars and you are free,” he wrote her wistfully.

Their passion for each other fueled their work. (“Since I cannot sing, I paint,” she wrote.) Her love letters make it easy to see the erotic reference in some of her most famous flower paintings of the 1920s, as well as in his nude photos of her. Her colored flowers and abstractions are ferociously bright. Even her rendition of a cow skull on a tree resembles a flower. “You the wild child of the soil, I city-bred, of the city” is a Stieglitz observation picked out by Puts, who was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his opera Silent Night.

The singers performed under iconic O’Keefe images in the projection design of Wendall K. Harrington.

The tonal score is generally light, identifiable as recent American, with musical breathing space between the notes in the spirit of Elmer Bernstein’s film music for To Kill a Mockingbird. It is skillfully set for the two voices, beginning with a slight string tone and thickening to great, billowing triads, as voices drop out and charcoals turn to abstract painting in color. The celesta and piano, colorful and potent, were placed near the podium. Vytas Baksys, the BSO pianist, played both, and got his own bow.

Backstage at the Tanglewood premiere – soprano Renée Fleming, baritone R Gilfry, Boston Symphony music director Andris Nelsons, composer Kevin Puts, projection designer Wendall K. Harrington.

When orchestral interludes accompanied slides, the darkened stage was lighted and the score percussive and brassy, in the faux-primitif mode of The Rite of Spring. In later photos of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz together, he has a glint in his eye, but she looks more straitlaced, as in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. BSO music director Andris Nelsons, settled in and developing, was in top form.

Fleming was a lovely persona as always, but Gilfrey’s words came off more clearly. (Words were printed in the program, not that anyone could read them in the dark.) A photograph of the old Penn Station, with light streaming from high windows like waterfalls, is accompanied by the sung text: “You hopped off the train in Pennsylvania Station, ran up to me and kissed me!” Fleming smoothly and freely tossed off little turns and fillips. Gilfry, somewhat stentorian, had a good flow but didn’t convey the private rake we now know Stieglitz was.

O’Keeffe in 1932, as captured in a gelatin silver print by Stieglitz. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

O’Keeffe grows old without him after his death, for 40 years, and Puts, who assembled the piece without a librettist, made up more letters for her to write her dead husband. Fleming had the vocal force and placement of the older O’Keeffe, who in photos was skinny, in a bandanna.

If audiences sit still for this 50-minute mixed-media piece (not clear from the amount of slinking out on this meltingly hot and humid night), and if it can be produced without much added expense, Brightness of Light will have a life. A smaller previous version, for female soloist, was originally commissioned by the Eastman School of Music and heard in Alice Tully Hall in 2016, under the title Letters from Georgia. Fleming suggested expanding the concept, so perhaps we can hope for yet another version.

The last letter, “Tonight I walked into the sunset,” as imagined by Puts, has the meditative quality of the solo at the end of Strauss’ Capriccio, which has become a Fleming signature.

The Elgar, which opened the program, is another work whose whole is made of fragments. Elgar used music alone to portray the characters of his friends. Nelsons led a spirited, hearty reading, bringing out a strong string presence and muscular brass. This piece is fine without any visuals at all.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.