Review by Amy McBride
The song cycle “PENELOPE” was mesmerizing from beginning to end! Even after watching, and hearing it performed I am still unsure if I was really there when it happened. The voice of Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) was captivating; somehow subtly voracious, and at the same time incredibly poetic and wondrous. Sarah Kirkland Snider, the composer of this magical story, came up with this idea of loosely basing Penelope on the story of Homer’s Odyssey; modernized into a story of a soldier returning to his wife after 20 years at war. The soldier has suffered brain damage and it seems that the sea that took him to war has finally brought him home to his wife. This lyrical orchestral story was made for Worden’s voice as she hauntingly expresses what it is like to find one’s husband, now a stranger to her, on the doorstep. She reads him the Odyssey as a way to lead her husband back to her, shedding light on the tragedies he witnessed during the war.
A brilliant piece, originally scored for quartet was far more powerful and moving with an orchestra, such as the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony, providing the tremendous percussion that moved the piece from section to section. The string instruments, especially the addition of the harp allowed for the full of emotion of each part of the story to come though in its entirety. With no intermission the vision of this tale flowed perfectly, enabling the audience to remain captivated by how Worden’s voice, together with the electronic noises of the Sea and sounds of distant war, plus the string & percussion instruments, navigated through this heartbreaking yet uplifting piece.
I sat there wondering how this woman would have been able to deal with her husbands return, I was able to piece together and create a living picture in my mind while concentrating on this hypnotic collaboration. The various themes were twisted back and forth throughout the selection. Return, love, loss, remembrance, identity, new beginnings, anger and envy of a life lost were each recognizable when the solemn sounds of the violins, violas, and cellos mixed together with pulsating bass and intense percussion. It was hard to tell if Edwin Outwater, the conductor of the KWS, or Worden’s voice was leading the symphony and Brian Wolfe’s intense drumming. It was such an emotional piece that I am sure each person in the audience connected with it at some moment or another. The entire time I was unsure if I should cry, or laugh, or just be, it made me feel positive about some of the struggles in my life. Especially with the expressive lyrics that centered on the theme of the Sea, our lives can be tranquil or turbulent; we come and go as do the tides. The way we idealize home life even when it can be an unhappy place, just as relationships are never stagnant. While dealing with brain damage the themes of remembrance and identity are paramount. The violins drew out the sheer painful emotion of such a difficulty, while the percussion instruments provided the notes of frustration and anger felt by the wife. It was easy to feel the disconnect between the world the husband has come back to and the world of war that still lingers in his subconscious. The electronic noises in the background of war and the changing seas exposes how his identity is literally hanging in the balance, and the voice of his wife is trying to express her feelings while attempting to revitalize him.
The themes that I truly felt were essential to Snider’s complex artistry, her understanding of how a single voice backed by the passionate and commanding rhythms of each instrument could tell a story that is so human and full of naked emotion, were those of nature. The Sea being the main and recurring theme interpreted by the string instruments and the electronics enabled the story to flow from each heartbreaking moment to the ones of discovery. The all encompassing theme of the World, as a powerful and almost crushing force that maintains power over each of us as we navigate through life, was expertly and creatively represented by the bass, percussion, the wind instruments and the horns, which resulted in the creation of intimidating yet fluid portrayals of the essence of wind, and weather. The lyrics finalize the theme of the World by stating that “the world is never done with us, travelers will stay lost” until the World decides to let us go. I think this could relate to both the husband and the wife, the husband was allowed to return home by the World but he remained lost due to his brain damage, while the wife had to travel through the ups and downs of this new relationship. They would either stay lost together or finally be found and released. We, as a human race, seem to lose sight of the fact that we are inherently connected to nature, and that the World is a powerful force that enables us to live.
As a surprise encore Worden and the KWS performed three of her own pieces. The show had actually opened with a very artistic piece about the Sea by Worden, which we actually watched the music video for. It was the perfect way to lead into the prevalent theme of our changing lives. The first piece performed at the culmination of Penelope was ‘We Added it Up’ from the album “All Things Unwind”. The woodwinds, flutes and horns all had a turn to compliment Worden’s voice. She was a different character through her performance of Penelope but she was able to be her fun expressive self while dancing and acting out the song. Essentially it was about life’s antonyms, the confusion that we create for ourselves with each difference. The audience was asked to participate by saying the line: “Love Binds the World” for the remainder of the song.
The second piece, “Be Brave” is my favorite of Worden’s so far, as I have been listening to it over and over again. Worden had bells around her wrist, and without the KWS it just would not have been as significant. The flutes again were essential to this, as were the oboes, tambourine, percussion and her bells. It was a song about dealing with being overwhelmed, which Worden does in such a classy way. The choir-like electronics only made the song feel more mystical and electrically charged. The third and final piece of the night was Reaching Through to the Other Side, which was a perfect ending as it combined all of the issues found in Penelope. All of the musicians of the KWS took part, the tuba added the perfect deep dramatic notes that paired well with the drums, while the string and wind instruments proclaimed “It is wondrous to be alive.” I found her performance incredibly fulfilling and even though the entire evening dealt with some difficult issues I left feeling light and happy. It was an evening of self-discovery through story telling led so well by the soloist..
Review by Amy McBride