Press Review: Mashup of Amanda Gorman and Bach at Carnegie Hall

1440 1920 Jan Vogler USA

If I had been asked who would be the main attraction of Saturday night’s Carnegie Hall mashup between the poet and the composer, my guess would have been Amanda Gorman. I would not have guessed it would be the cellist Jan Vogler.

As it turned out, however, his performance of three of Bach’s cello suites, more or less interrupted by Gorman’s rap-inflected poetry, made him the star of the show. This is not to say that her recitation of several of her best-known poems, among them “The Hill We Climb,” first heard at President Biden’s inauguration, was not intentionally uplifting, beautifully enunciated, or strikingly performed. It was all of that.

But let’s face it. Although comparisons may be egregious, Vogler’s sublime mastery of Bach’s cello cycle took the concert to a higher level than the poetry. His delicate phrasing and spirited intonation, let alone the rich, dark, unsweetened sound of his glorious instrument — according to the program notes, a “Stradivari ‘ex Castelbereo / Fau’ 1707 cello” — together with his modesty in playing second fiddle to Gorman, made the evening especially memorable.

I have heard masterly performances of Bach’s cello suites recorded by many performers, among them Pablo Casals, Yo-Yo Ma, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jacqueline du Pré, Janos Starker, and Lynn Harell. Here’s a short recording by Vogler, in which you can hear what I mean by his delicate phrasing and spirited intonation.

Gorman may be the world’s most stylish poet. She certainly looked that way dressed to the nines at the Biden inauguration. Her poetry is stylish, too — all dressed up in rhymes, internal and otherwise, emphatic and transparent.

Here is the last stanza of “An Ode We Owe,” first read at the United Nations in 2022 and the first poem she read on the Carnegie program.

I only ask that you care before it’s too late,
That you live aware and awake,
That you lead with love in hours of hate.
I challenge you to heed this call,
I dare you to shape our fate.
Above all, I dare you to do good
So that the world might be great.

And here is the opening of “New Day’s Lyric,” which she read as the last poem before the intermission:

May this be the day
We come together.
Mourning, we come to weather,
Torn, we come to tend,
Battered, we come to better.

Some may call her poetry doggerel. I won’t. But I will say that I wish her poetry one day swings like that of Gwendolyn Brooks or Ishmael Reed. Given her gifts, I don’t believe that’s too much to hope for.