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To fulfill a shared commission from the New York Philharmonic Contact Series and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, German conductor and composer Matthias Pintscher (b. 1971) wrote songs from Solomon’s garden (2010) as a piece specifically tailored for baritone Thomas Hampson, who was not only an old acquaintance but also the artist-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic at the time. Pintscher took advantage of the occasion to capitalize on his interest in the Hebrew language and the Shir Hashirim, or Song of Solomon.
Pintscher had already set the fifth of the eight chapters of the Shir Hashirim for a cappella chorus in 2008, titling it after the Hebrew phrase that translates into English as “For I am sick of love.” In songs from Solomon’s garden, Pintscher set the second chapter of Shir Hashirim for baritone and chamber orchestra, but the phrase “For I am sick of love” recurs (the fifth verse), and Pintscher borrowed from the same music that set the phrase in the older piece.
Aside from this one deliberately intellectual instance of quoting an earlier piece, Pintscher’s music proceeds by and large intuitively, although in his own words he would also have the listener imagine a “wall of sound” for each of the extremely meaningful or “radiant” words from the text, creating in such a wall almost a second person performing in concert with the baritone. Meanwhile, the first seven of 17 verses are a dialogue between a male and female, creating symbolically another pair of characters on the stage.
By emphasizing in the title the “garden” metaphor that ultimately stands for both spiritual and erotic love, Pintscher drew upon opportunities for depicting many different kinds of descriptive words from the Hebrew text that are included in the garden, including different flowers, fruits, and animals. Perhaps ironically, the actual Hebrew word for garden (ginah) does not appear in the second chapter (as it does in the opening of the fifth chapter).
Above all, Pintscher’s fluid style of atonality may indeed reflect vividly his “sound-wall” idea, but the immediacy of an otherwise naturally lyrical and vernacular style of composing music, combined with his ease in working with large instrumental forces, prevails over anything else. He freely compares his music to how poetry and the visual arts function, but his musical idiom here stands on its own, as does the general lyrical pace and meaning of the poetry.