We are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was.
The meaning of the line might have resonated sincerely or with a tragic lack of self-awareness at any point in America since Carl Sandburg wrote it nearly a century ago. But we live when we live, and the folly of a civilization throwing itself headlong into its own demise had stinging relevance Friday night at the Philadelphia Orchestra's performance of Michael Tilson Thomas' setting, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind.
The work is an "exploration of what actually happens at the party the night before civilization ends," says the composer in a program note.
Known here and widely mostly as a conductor, Tilson Thomas has had his eye on Sandburg's poem for decades, but set about putting it to music in 2003, and returned to it in 2015 and 2016. That it arrives now seems like an act of artistic providence.
The first Philadelphia Orchestra performance of the piece was Thursday night, and Friday's, when I caught up with it, was threatened by the wild weather. It wasn't clear whether an orchestra of adequate complement could get to the hall for the repertoire at hand. The ensemble materialized; an audience, less so. Verizon Hall played host to only about 420 listeners.
It was a concert about final statements. Tilson Thomas programmed the second half with a strong if not revelatory Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 notable for an impetuous dash here and there in the first movement and a bright tempo in the second. The woodwinds glowed – not only with the velvet of flute unisons led by David Cramer, but also the tight interplay among Cramer, clarinetist Ricardo Morales, oboist Richard Woodhams and bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa.
The star of the program, though, was the Four Preludes, and it is a knockout. Tilson Thomas draws on multiple musical styles. Funk seems not far off, and rock rears its head. Saxes, brass, rock guitars, and bass guitars line the back of the ensemble. A tender orchestral section curdles into dissonance and sweetens again. Sandburg's lines are taken by three singers, who appeared on stage in dark robes and then stripped them off to reveal slinky gold gowns. The lead singer, Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, prowled the stage, sometimes teasing players in the orchestra with a mocking seductive look or gesture. The two other vocalists, Mikaela Bennett and Kara Dugan, were particularly effective at the end, lit in the conductor's circle while singing the humbling reminder that it has all happened before.
It's hard to imagine this piece having as much impact with anyone but Brueggergosman, who had to deploy the vocal techniques of Jan DeGaetani within the smooth package of a Las Vegas lounge singer.
Tilson Thomas, with assistance from orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, has written dire stuff. The piece has moments of light, a patch in a conciliatory movie-music vein. But for the most part, the composer takes Sandburg's words and colors them darkly.
It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
And paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
The singers sing and warble. A cash-register ka-ching! rings out and a wind machine stirs. When civilization is all finished, though, only the rats and the lizards are around to listen, and the poet says that not even the writing of the rat footprints tells us anything about the "greatest city, the greatest nation."
If Sandburg's view at the time was salient or bracing, Tilson Thomas tolls in a key more chilling still.