Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2007 | As this new year begins, we are teetering on the unknown abroad and entering a new political era at home. As only music can do, a concert from the San Diego Chamber Orchestra on the first weekend of 2007 can help us maintain our equilibrium.

Jung-Ho Pak has designed a program of American songs — words by American poets set to music by American composers. “I want this concert to appeal to people who love to read, love theater, love American culture,” said Pak, who took over as the artistic director and conductor of SDCO this season.

Under Pak’s guidance, the orchestra is changing its mission from “playing music of Beethoven and Bach to grabbing souls in the audience, to sharing intense feelings of joy and passion,” he said. If so, the subject matter for this program is a grabber, starting with a nostalgic feast, diving into the tragedy of war, and then ending with a shadowy optimism. Some of the songs evoke an America that we love and long for; others suggest an America that we have lost and mourn. The soloists will be soprano Megan Weston and baritone Leon Williams.

Pak has titled this program “Poetic Pairs:” three great American writers — James Agee, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson — whose writing inspired three great American composers — Samuel Barber, Kurt Weill and Aaron Copland.

Barber wrote “Knoxville: 1915” in 1947 using the prose-poem prologue from “A Death in the Family,” a novel that Agee wrote in 1938 and later was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer. During World War II, Weill took time from writing Broadway musicals and set to music four of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems. Copland wrote music for 12 of Dickinson’s poems in 1950, after he had heard “The Chariot,” one of her best-known works.

In “Knoxville: 1915,” Barber appropriates Agee’s celebration of small town America, which both writer and composer knew well. Agee, who was primarily a journalist, was from Knoxville, TN and Barber from West Chester, PA. At 15 minutes length, this is the longest single work on the program.

“Being an American Korean, I have a very romantic and idealized view of America. It has to do with Walt Disney’s main street, the straw hat, the ice cream cone and barbershop quartets,” Pak said, in an interview over green tea and cake in a Hillcrest café recently.

Agee painted a lyrical picture of a safe, secure small town, in those dusky hours after dinner. In a time before sports and other activities began eating up family life, children played freely outdoors, and parents sat in rockers on front porches watching the street. As night falls, the family rests on quilts spread over the backyard’s wet lawn, under a star-filled sky.

Remaining true to Agee’s prose, Barber’s music is delicately painted, like haiku in its precision and economy, Pak said. Only a brief Stravinsky-like interlude — the “iron moan” of a streetcar — breaks the mood. It prefigures the novel’s tragic turn when the father in the family dies; Agee’s own father died when he was six. Agee’s text and Barber’s music end with the mystery of growing up and adulthood.

“You want to believe that there was a time of simplicity where you didn’t have to lock the door,” Pak said of “Knoxville: 1915.” We do lock our doors, trying to shut out the darkness; shopping and sports have become drugs of choice. No one described the futility of those efforts like Walt Whitman in his Civil War poems.

Whitman also began his writer’s life as a journalist in and around New York City. With its long lines, vibrant rhythms and vividly details, his poetry comes right off the front page. For some time, Whitman was a music writer and critic for several newspapers and an opera fan with a keen interest in singing. About 1,200 of Whitman’s poems have been set to music, according to baritone Thomas Hampson, who has found 400 and recorded about two dozen of them.

Whitman wrote about the Civil War and American society in his poetry compendium “Leaves of Grass.” He was horrified by what he saw, when he visited field hospitals looking for his brother who had been wounded. Whitman then spent ten years tending soldiers in military hospitals and working as a paymaster for the Union army and in other government positions.

Kurt Weill’s music for four of his poems matches the drama of Whitman’s poems, which are about the America we live in today. Each lasts just a few minutes; all go to the gut.

In one poem, we see war entering every nook and cranny of American life. In another, we follow a funeral procession for a father and son killed together on the same battlefield. Then, a letter from the War Department with bad news about their son catches a family as their harvest rolls in. Finally, Americans’ celebration of the war’s end is battered by news that Lincoln is “fallen cold and dead.”

Weill’s music — sometimes with ambling, easy rhythms and jaunty tunes and other times a martial cacophony — transforms the ordinary lives of Americans into portraits of national disorientation and grief.

Whitman’s drama might be off-putting to us today. As Pak put it, “It’s just so hard to awaken the soul with words from the heart. Reality television has taken sincere emotion and language and varnished and exploited it so that we gawk at it as a car accident.”

Weill’s musical language adapts Whitman’s poems for our times. Pak said it is totally unexpected, an eerie juxtaposition of American populism and German expressionism, infusing Whitman’s poems with a cabaret quality.

“You hear Kurt Weill, and the words are Walt Whitman. It’s not peanut butter and jelly. It’s balsamic vinegar and figs.”

The concert ends with a return to a gentility commonly attributed to the poems of Emily Dickinson. Like Agee, Dickinson lived in small-town America, Amherst, in central Massachusetts. Never marrying, she rarely left The Homestead, the house in which she was born just a few blocks from the Amherst College campus. With about 3,500 residents, the town was somewhat removed from the intellectual ferment of mid-nineteenth-century New England, closer to Boston. Still, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most prominent of the transcendentalists, was among the visitors that the Dickinsons received.

The poetry Dickinson wrote over a 30-year period is often portrayed as a spinster’s musings, fit perhaps for greeting cards. Yet with steely concise language, she explored cosmic issues of love, suffering and death in the context of every day life.

This juxtaposition is the powerful engine of Dickinson’s irony. “Going to Heaven,” for instance, is a sprightly poem about death and the joy of preparing for the journey. She wants just the right dress; the smallest size “will fit me,” Dickinson writes.

Copland took a year to write the music for Dickinson’s poems, at a time when he was trying to find an American idiom, with works like “Billy the Kid” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

His spare music fits Dickinson’s short, broken up lines and quirky meter. Pak said that while Barber was setting words to music, and Weill was composing as if he was a writing film score, Copland was interested in having the music express the emotion.

This is a challenging concert, especially for Americans seduced by theme parks and “truthiness.” For Pak, this concert is a reminder that “Whitman and Dickinson are not just books you read in college and put on a shelf. They’re important to what we are.”

Concert Information:

San Diego Chamber Orchestra presents “Poetic Pairs,” songs by American poets and composers; James Agee/Samuel Barber, “Knoxville: 1915”; four Civil War songs by Walt Whitman/Kurt Weill; eight songs by Emily Dickinson/Aaron Copland; with Jung-Ho Pak, conductor, Megan Weston, soprano and Leon Williams, baritone; 7:30 p.m., Jan 5, 8 and 9; venues, respectively are St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego; Sherwood Auditorium, Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla; Del Mar Country Club, Rancho Santa Fe; Tickets: $20-55, or call 858-350-0290.

Music notes: January is a red-letter month for San Diego’s music lovers, with concerts from resident as well as visiting artists. Here’s a short list of events with links to information:

Jan. 6, Tokyo String Quartet,

Jan. 12-14, San Diego Symphony,

Jan. 19, Kronos Quartet,

Jan. 21, pianist Lang Lang,

Jan. 21, Early Music Society,

Jan. 26, Red Priest“target=”_blank”>,

Jan. 26, Camarada,

Jan. 26, San Diego Symphony,

Jan. 26-27, Eroica Trio,

Jan. 27, Emerson String Quartet,

Jan. 27-Feb. 7, San Diego Opera, “Boris Gudonov,”

Jan. 28, San Diego Youth Symphony,

Jan. 28, Noise at the Library,

Cathy Robbins’ book, “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)” will be published by the University of Nebraska Press. She is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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