N.C. Symphony: Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Hiraeth
Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh
Friday, September 25, 2015

In April, the North Carolina Symphony played three songs from Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered, just as she was putting the finishing touches on Hiraeth, a commission the body premiered last week.

Unremembered is all about exploding genres, bringing Van Dyke Parks into conversation with John Adams, My Brightest Diamond into collision with Edgard Varèse, and art song into contact with concept album. A recording is out now on New Amsterdam Records, and it’s great.

But Hiraeth, which I heard at Meymandi Concert Hall during its second performance, is a totally different beast. While there are bits of pop and rock sprinkled occasionally through, the piece feels much more “classical” than anything of Snider’s I’ve ever heard.

During the pre-concert talk, Grant Llewellyn gave an impromptu lesson in Welsh pronunciation as a way into Hiraeth: “It’s pronounced ‘hear-ryeth,’ with a rolled r.” To demonstrate the word’s meaning, he told the story of a group of Welsh settlers who traveled to Patagonia in the mid-19th century. More than a century later, their descendants are still there, speaking Welsh and Spanish and maintaining various Welsh traditions, far removed from their homeland. They are, he continued, an embodiment of the idea of hiraeth, a sense of loss and longing for a lost homeland.

For Snider, that lost homeland consists of memories of childhood visits to her grandparents in Salisbury, North Carolina, shot through with grief for her father, who died shortly after she started writing the piece. Unsurprisingly, the music is quite dark, though never grim. She achieves this effect in ways both obvious and subtle: large swaths of minor-key harmonies; well-placed bursts of dissonance or eerie drones that cut against the cheerier melodies; dense orchestral writing that feels heavy, like the humid summer air of her memories; and the overall architecture, which never quite functions how you expect.

For instance, the final build—a memorable passage with echoing, interlocking lines in the strings and brass over a simple melody in various lower voices, all buoyed by an insistent snare drum line—seems to gain momentum over a few minutes (or maybe more or less, as time flows in unusual ways through the piece), working toward some expected grand climax. But instead, at what could be a peak, the music dissipates into something much more somber, gradually dissolving into nothingness. One could make a case that this is a metaphor for loss, but that reading might be too heavy-handed. Overall, Snider’s command of the orchestra is fantastic, even if her colors are always highly saturated. It’s an engrossing composition that I look forward to hearing again.

Video shot by Mark DeChiazza accompanied Hiraeth. Shot in and around Salisbury and featuring Snider’s children, her uncle and members of the Salisbury community, it works in imagistic fragments, always seeming to come in and out of footage of rain against the asphalt. We see flashes of trains, dinner parties, cemeteries, car rides, trees and the light that was so critical to Snider’s memories. But the film never really illustrates the music: It occasionally comments on it but mostly runs alongside it. Sometimes I had trouble paying attention to the film, as the music was so engrossing. But I don’t regret occasionally lifting my eyes.

The show also featured three other works by American composers (well, four, if you count the odd “Star Spangled Banner” sing-along that started the concert), all expertly performed. The symphony’s version of Bernstein’s early composition “Three Dances from On the Town” felt like a halfway point between West Side Story and one of Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes soundtracks. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s fleet performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F brought the crowd to its feet. And with its sense of longing suspension, his encore of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess seemed an appropriate way to end the evening.