Letters & Fantasies
The music of David DiChiera
On what seemed to be the coldest day of Winter, the doors of the historic Jam Handy Film Studios on East Grand Boulevard opened to welcome Artists and Producers from around the globe to record the music of David DiChiera. The setting seemed to come straight from Shakespeare’s Tempest - in the days prior, the Detroit area was subject to a storm that could only be matched by the Bard’s sense of drama and tension, leaving half the city without power for days. It was in this stillness, after the storm, that the first notes of Letter to Sarah gently filled the soaring space that was once home to one of the largest production studios in the United States.
Baritone Matthew Konopacki recites with quiet reservation the opening lines of Maj. Sullivan Ballou’s Letter to Sarah, channeling with confidence an assertion of love that could only be said if it was known to be for the last time. It is quite unusual for an Art song to begin with a recitative. With piano and trumpet conversing at ease in the background, the text begins to come to life and transcend to a different world.
The harmonies draw inspiration from traditions of the grand romantic style - it is here that DiChiera is in his element and at the height of expression. This style is an essential connection to the story of perseverance and dedication that has defined the DiChiera legacy. While different compositional vogues have and gone in the span of the last 100 years, DiChiera stays true to a keen sense of harmony and melody.
Here are the boundaries that he expands. The four sonnets after the verses of Edna St. Vincent Millay are no strangers to dissonance. One feels the harsh inevitability in the first half step of Time does not Bring Relief, simply two notes neighboring each other, yet torn apart by an immense energy and distance. It is upon this dissonance that soprano Angela Theis descends with vivid concentration.
If the first sonnet is a thorough exploration of time, Loving You Less Than Life floats outside of time and space. It is in these melodic lines, where piano and voice finally converge as one in the end, we find a sense of love without barriers and limits. This is not always the case for love - I, Being Born a Woman starkly contrasts with playful sarcasm a sense of sexuality that needs no romantic sentiment.
For whom does the bell toll in What Lips my Lips have Kissed? Perhaps we all are waiting for the day that life comes to collect and shake us out of fantasy into stark reality. And yet, even then, may we have the courage to find and grasp a melody of light, as is the case with the penultimate line of the final sonnet, “I only know that summer sang in me.” It is this line that repeats and never tires, a perpetual light that keeps shining as a beacon of promise for better days and a confirmation of life lived with purpose.
These bells continue to echo in the Ballade for piano solo, where a dark world of fantasy alludes to demonic elements akin to Dante’s Inferno. It is with this ferocity that violinist Yury Revich strikes the strings of a Stradivarius in the development of the Fantasie for Violin and Piano, climbing through the upper registers tirelessly, driving forward only to dissolve into emptiness on a single sound, without any resolution.
The three mysterious Black Beads are a sudden migration from DiChiera’s usual style. The minimal texts of his personal friend, poet, and Detroit-native Richard Kubinski, who penned the lines at not even 20 years of age and died tragically shortly thereafter, are painted with a musical setting that is just as bare in its essence. It is from this very minimalism that emerges a haunting potency expressed by mezzo soprano Annalise Dzwonczyk and Briana Elyse Hunter, who float over detached lines intertwining tensely. It is here that the distance between harmony and melody seems to be at its greatest expanse. This is the dark forest of which Dante speaks in the opening lines of the Divina Commedia where the straightforward pathway has been lost. And it is these songs that mark the beginning of a departure for DiChiera - a return to composition would only be prompted several decades later.
The final Letter to Roxane is based on one of the last duets of DiChiera’s grand opera, Cyrano. How can we imagine Roxane’s emotions when she finally understands that she has loved only one being, but has lost him twice? And yet, out of this tragic story, cellist Aleksey Shadrin illuminates a melodic line that brings life full circle. It is here where we come close to a truth that needs no defense, it is the genuine simplicity that we are lucky to find, if only once in a lifetime. It is a feeling of love and of gratitude, of light and of hope, it is a feeling that vanishes just as suddenly as it appears, it is this moment.
concluding unmusical postscript
I was not even 10 years old when I first met Dr. D. It would only be many years later that he would insist that I simply address him as “David”. Little did he know that my 8-year old self once came up to him to ask, quite nervously, what his favorite piano concerto was, only to realize it was the same as one of my favorites, the first piano concerto of Sergei Rachmaninoff. And little did I know that many years later I would find myself on stages playing that very concerto with orchestras, and that music would have completely taken over my life and become my sole passion and purpose. Over the past years, I have had the fortune of repeatedly performing David DiChiera’s compositions in concert. Our relationship, composer to performer, mentor to mentee, and simply friend to friend, has been one of the great honors and privileges of my life. Knowing that most of his music has never been recorded in a studio, I sensed an opportunity to create a document that would reveal a completely different side of a man who contributed so much to the city of Detroit but at the core of whom still resided this incredible Artist-Composer. Speaking with David, we decided to create this album featuring his music and empowering young artists, all while rooting it in the remarkable place that is Detroit.