Arts & Culture

Review: ‘Undelivered’ a dignified musical tribute to JFK

President John F. Kennedy’s final speech has been delivered at last. It wasn’t in the format he envisioned, but its message remains powerful after the passage of half a century, and its new form is a noble salute to the fallen president.

The speech was to have been given at the Trade Mart in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 — on a morning that started in Fort Worth. But fate intervened, and the speech lay in the archives for decades until composer Gregory Sullivan Isaacs (an occasional Star-Telegram contributor) and writer Suzanne Calvin decided to create a cantata with the speech at its center.

They were granted permission by the Kennedy Library in Boston, and on Sunday evening, the work received its premiere in DeSoto’s Corner Theatre. The performance will be repeated today at the Lilipad in Fort Worth and Wednesday at the Chandor Gardens in Weatherford.

The cantata, titled Undelivered, is a structurally complicated work of substantial length (about 45 minutes) and strong impact — though the performing force is not large.

Instrumentalists include members of the Hall Ensemble, which commissioned the work — bassoonist Kevin Hall, violinist Jennifer Chang, violist Aleksandra Holowka and cellist Karen Hall. They are joined by violinist Gary Levinson of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and horn player Mark Houghton of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

Vocalists are mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy, who sings the president’s words; and soprano Jacquelyn Lengfelder and baritone Jeffrey Snider, who form a kind of Greek chorus that comments in both spoken and sung word on the ideas proposed in the text.

The composer conducts.

Musically, Isaacs’ style is varied within a basic neo-Romantic framework. Soft, high notes played by a solo violin at the beginning signal that the work will not avoid statements of lyrical beauty (the same atmosphere returns at the end).

The music becomes grittier at times, especially in a section devoted to the words of a cynical politician, but Kennedy’s speech is treated musically with dignified solemnity.

The inclusion of a bassoon and a French horn in the instrumental ensemble adds a welcome bit of variety to the sound.

Although the president’s speech is the point of the cantata, Calvin has brought in words by others that have some bearing, if tangential, to Kennedy’s ideas. Those include passages from Daniel Webster and Lord Byron, as well as words from the Catholic Mass. Calvin’s own contribution includes a moving poem, Black Horse, that refers to the traditional riderless horse at military funerals.

The sung text was not always clear Sunday night (high notes work against clarity), but a printed text was provided, and fortunately the theater’s lights were left bright enough that the words could be read.

One striking point is how pertinent Kennedy’s speech is today. Some subjects, such as deficit spending and growth of government, are as controversial now as were in 1963. In fact, today a Democratic candidate could read the speech, uncredited, and probably few would notice it was a historical document from half a century ago.

The first half of Sunday’s program was devoted to other music and words, including poetry by Rudyard Kipling and T.S. Eliot.

The most interesting innovation was four songs from Schubert’s Die Winterreise. Instead of being sung, Wilhelm Mueller’s poetry was read by Snider, and then the Hall Ensemble played an arrangement of the piano part while Houghton played the vocal part on his horn.