Duke Performances presented an unusual and highly successful collaborative work in Baldwin Auditorium on November 18 as part of its Essential Classics programming.

The Blue Hour was commissioned for and by the chamber string orchestra A Far Cry, with aid from four presenting organizations, and the piece had its premiere at Washington Performing Arts shortly before the Durham presentation.

A Far Cry is a Boston collective, in which decision-making is shared and leadership rotates among the 18 “Criers.” For the group’s 10th anniversary, it pushed this music-making structure even further by working with five composers, a singer, and a poetic text to create an extremely beautiful work, deeply affecting on every level.

Composers Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angélica Négron, Shara Nova and Caroline Shaw have distinctive styles, and each composed sections individually – it was easy to distinguish each artist’s work. Yet because they had collaborated from the beginning on musical themes and worked closely together on transitions and refrains, the larger work unreels like silk and has a unified wholeness not often encountered in collaborative work. This is partly due to the way the sections are stitched together by the silken voice of the jazz singer Luciana Souza, who appeared at Duke in a rich ruffled gown, the color of a full-blown rose, deep pink shaded by blue twilight. Her impeccable diction and elegant timing in a voice that maintained its purity, whether belling out or barely whispering, made her the ideal vocal instrument for this piece. I can’t think of another contemporary singer who would be so able to compel silent attention for 70 minutes of poetry.

The text for The Blue Hour is excerpted from Carolyn Forché’s lengthy poem “On Earth,” which is one of the linked sequence of 11 poems in her 2003 book, Blue Hour. Reviewing the volume in 2003, critic Jim Schley wrote that “the new work is musical rather than discursive in manner, as delicate as Chopin and likewise muscular and precise.”

The Blue Hour opens with a recording of Forché reading from here and there in the poem, with a spare score [invocations] by Négron behind her. The chosen lines, spoken with the poet’s ultimate authority, set the pace, the tone, and the themes, both poetic and musical that would follow – the clarity of sensations; the mysterious uncertainties of knowledge and faith; the romance of memory and forgetting; the beneficence of each breath.

Certainly, the excerpts utilized by the composers gave themselves easily to musical analogues. The poem is in the form of an abecedarium, with memories and sensations swirling through its alphabetized lists in a kind of meditation on life, a particular life, in its blue hour, when the sun is just below the horizon, and final dark will soon fall. We wandered, but inexorably, from angelica, anne’s lace, antiphon, aria, ash, asylum to twirling organdy dresses waving goodbye, and on to zero, on lush waves, and mad clashings, and attenuated breaths of sound, through all the shades of blue, into the silence.

The music is full of its own rememberings, of sounds, of other musics: a brittle crack, a bullet clicking, fragments of the Second Brandenburg, night-voiced viola, wild doves in a warehouse. It magicks out echoes of the original sounds recalled in the poem, pairing them with their indicative words – their meanings, sonances, textures, and shapes. Like the poem, like the life, the music is a flow, not piecework or collage. It pauses, it shifts, it meanders, but it continues unbroken, with its insistent refrain: all of this must remain.

Although written by five composers and realized by a vocalist, two bassists, three cellists, four violists and nine violinists, this music had the unity and cohesion of a chorus singing in one voice. It was so unified that it was nearly impossible to separate the musical compositions from the playing of the music: it was as if the orchestra were singing (and sometimes they literally were) songs just then pouring from their souls.

Duke Performances has evidenced a continuing interest in presenting collaborative performance works for many years. The Blue Hour is perhaps the most fully successful of these presentations thus far, both in scope of its conception and in the full artistic melding of its components into a song cycle reverberant with reverence for life on earth.