When the La Jolla Symphony & Chorus closes its “Soundscape San Diego” season on June 4 and 5 at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium, it will mark the realization of a long-cherished dream. In his penultimate season as choral director, LJS&C’s David Chase will conduct a performance of Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: a Requiem for those we love,” a 1946 work based on the sprawling elegy by Walt Whitman.
Hindemith’s work, one of two offerings in the concert that wraps up LJS&C’s 61st season (the other is Benjamin Britten’s “An American Overture”), is special to Chase in part because it was originally commissioned by his mentor, conductor Robert Shaw. This performance of “Lilacs” will also find Chase conducting his son, baritone Darren Chase, along with mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano.
“It’s a daunting piece on numerous levels,” said David Chase. “For a very long time, I was afraid of it. I always thought of it as a piece I ought to be able to do someday, but I never felt I was quite ready for it. … I got the notion 20 years ago that I would like to do it with Darren. It has such a big, gorgeous baritone solo part.
“I thought that one of these days there would be a reason to man up and do (‘Lilacs’).”
That’s where Darren came in. David talked with his son about a couple of possible pieces they could collaborate on, the two of them having not appeared on stage together since 2006. Darren, his father recalled, was all in on “Lilacs.”
Whitman’s extended poem was written in 1865 at the time to help ease the broken hearts of Americans who’d just lost their president, Abraham Lincoln, to an assassin’s bullet. Hindemith’s musical composition sought to provide the same catharsis for a nation that had just lost President Franklin D. Roosevelt, another wartime president. “Lilacs,” David Chase explained, both Whitman’s poem and Hindemith’s work, is also about those lost in wars and those left behind.
The world remains in need of comfort and understanding. “I think that any great music written by a first-rate composer and with a first-rate libretto stays relevant,” said David Chase, “just like any great piece of art. It’s so damned good. Beyond that, I’m afraid to say it, but I think we’re nowhere near finished with war and all of the things that this poetry reminds us of and that the music helps us feel.”
Baritone Darren Chase is also a high school English teacher in New York and brings with him both a literary and a musical perspective on “Lilacs.”
“The piece is really unique because there aren’t a lot of successful settings of Whitman. The first time I heard it was in my teens and I was really struck by how perfectly the text is set musically. I love literature. Possibly I’m more of a literary person than a musical person, and so the text and the text setting attracted me to the piece more than anything.”
From the vocalist’s standpoint, Darren added, performing “Lilacs” is “about making the diction as clear as possible and the phrasing as lyrical as possible so that you get out of the way of the poet’s work and the composer’s work.”
Besides both father’s and son’s appreciation of Hindemith’s piece is the one they feel for each other.
“I really wanted to do this,” said Darren, by phone from New York. “I know my father is, in my mind, always a young man and that he’s a big presence in my life.”
David Chase can say the same of his son. “I learned from him (Darren) things that I had not fully learned about society and about how to be an individual. It’s been the same musically.”
IF YOU GO: La Jolla Symphony & Chorus performs Paul Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: a Requiem for those we love” and Benjamin Britten’s “An American Overture,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday June 4 and 2 p.m. Sunday June 5 at Mandeville Auditorium, UCSD campus. Tickets: $15-$29. (858) 534-4637. lajollasymphony.com