MUSIC TO HEAR, Joseph Summer’s follow up to WHO IS SYLVIA from Navona Records off his Shakespeare Concerts set, is the result of the composer’s lifelong obsession with poetry. The album pairs the works of contemporary poets as well as Shakespeare with Summer’s music in order to express deeper significance than either words or music are capable of on their own.

The first two tracks on the record—both for string quartet with a female vocalist—set sonnets by the eminent poet Robert Kelly. They blossomed out of Summer’s friendship with Kelly; in return for Kelly having written a poem about Summer’s music, Summer set the poet’s “Sonnet 4, for Lydia” for mezzo soprano and string quartet as well as “Spring Sonnet” for soprano and quartet. These contemporary verses are paired Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 8” which cries out “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?” Later comes Boston composer Tom Schnauber’s world-premiere setting of Wordsworth’s “Scorn Not the Sonnet” for mezzo-soprano and piano.

After two more settings of Shakespeare, we hear composer Binna Kim give life to Lady Macbeth’s “Give Me Your Hand.” The piece for mezzo-soprano, cello, and piano is chillingly evocative, portraying Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness in the wake of the murders she helped perpetrate. Summer’s settings of Sonnets 97 & 98 follow, whose rich string textures are full of love and agonized longing. The work ends with Summer’s original “Epilogue to the Tempest,”—Andy Papas’s imposing baritone providing a satisfying finale to the album.

The marriage of music and poetry is both ancient and elemental. In his musical settings, Summer plums a region of the human soul rarely exposed in the bustle of daily life. In MUSIC TO HEAR, Summer invites listeners to claim this deeper humanity, just as Shakespeare did at the Globe Theatre some 400 years earlier.

This release features the award-winning Ulysses Quartet, in residence at the Juilliard School of Music.

The sharp, aggressive cello attacks of “Sycorax” opens the album, peppered with edgy dissonances. This piece by Summer is one of many world premieres on this record, recorded at Worcester’s legendary Mechanics Hall. Next comes three settings of Shakespeare’s song “Who is Silvia?” from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Each one extracts a new layer of meaning from the tender, heartsick lyrics, the first employing mezzo-soprano and harp, the second featuring a downright bluesy violin and sung in German as composed by Adolphus Hailstork, and a third with music by Gerald Finzi. Just as Shakespeare was known for addressing the social and political situations of his day, Summer’s world premier piece “Come Thou Monarch of the Vine and Hearing Transcript” pairs Schubert’s setting from Antony and Cleopatra with words taken from the 2019 Brett Kavanaugh hearings. After a song cycle by Schumann and several other pieces from other composers, the album concludes with three Shakespeare settings by Summer.

Much like Shakespeare, Summer keeps his audience engaged by constantly exploding their expectations. From one track to the next, the listener can never be quite sure what they are going to hear, and this keeps the ear at rapt attention. Surely, this album offers something for every listener.

This release features the award-winning Ulysses Quartet, in residence at the Juilliard School of Music.