in: Reviews

February 13, 2017

Seriously Splendid Strings and Baritone

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Dashon Burton (file photo)

A Far Cry offered a distinctive assortment of 20th-century music at the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall on Sunday afternoon with baritone Dashon Burton, demonstrating that a concert that lacks famous composers and familiar repertory can not only be as satisfying as one that includes those, but can also even excite an audience. Credit must go especially to cellist Michael Unterman who selected the eclectic and mostly quite serious pieces.

As Unterman noted on the group’s blog (read it here together with the fine program notes by Kathryn J. Allwine Bacamot), the program’s title “Misty” invokes “a kind of metaphorical fog of melancholy thoughts.” Opening with Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach for voice and strings, the program proceeded through four instrumental pieces, including Toru Takemitsu’s Dorian Horizon, ending with the “Serious Songs” (Ernste Gesänge) by Hanns Eisler. Unterman envisioned the afternoon “as a miniature drama in two acts … beginning and ending in the mists … emerging from the first cloud drawing on Barber’s youthful energy, then returning, drawing back towards Eisler’s acceptance and wistfulness.”  Unterman told the audience that, Barber wrote the opening piece while still a student; the concluding work was his last.

The great stylistic contrasts between the selections, which ranged from late- or neo-Romantic to experimental or “avant-garde,” prevented this listener from hearing them as a coherent drama. But it was enough to be treated to a series of rarely heard pieces, all notable for one reason or another, and to experience up close the unselfish music-making of twenty-two superb musicians.

When I was a student, Barber was looked down upon by academic musicians (including myself), who belittled him as an unreconstructed musical conservative. But his Dover Beach (1931), although taking no note of what Schoenberg or Stravinsky had been doing for the previous two decades, nevertheless constitutes an imaginative exploration of a harmonically complex late-Romantic idiom. Perhaps only a youthful composer would have had the audacity to set the famously evocative 19th-century poem by Malcolm Arnold. I’m not sure whether Barber quite captured the deeper resonances of the poem, which connects its Victorian author and his unnamed beloved with ancient Greek tragedy as they look out over the English Channel, memories of violence from the remote past still impinging on the present. But Burton’s gorgeous singing rose (with the Criers) to just the right level of real dramatic intensity for the climactic complaint of a world which “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” The beautifully shaped epilogue brought Dover Beach to its close.

More deliberately backward-looking was Dag Wirén’s Serenade for Strings, Op. 11 (1937), said to be the best-known composition by the Swedish neo-Classicist. I was glad to hear it, but I would not choose to do so again, as its four movements follow that derivative brand of neo-Classicism that borrowed 18th-century ideas without adding the imaginative elements that make Stravinsky’s or even Poulenc’s music from the same years so much more original. Only the third-movement scherzo seemed engaging, in a slightly jazzy, early-Bernsteinish way, but for Wirén to simply repeat the opening passage after a contrasting middle section struck me as a failure of the imagination. To be sure, the serenade was meant to be light and whimsical. But the concluding march is appallingly devoid of the irony that one might have expected in a military-inspired composition written not far from Germany in the late 1930s.

The Criers nevertheless executed it superbly, as they did the much more rousing Orawa by the Polish Wojciech Kilar. Best known for his music for films, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Portrait of a Lady (1996), Kilar, who was born in 1932, benefited from the relatively liberal attitude toward the arts in post-War Communist Poland. Like Penderecki and others of his generation, he initially adopted a so-called experimental approach, but he seems to have drawn back from that subsequently, as in this 1986 composition. Instead one hears some of the minimalism that by then had become quite fashionable, as in the use of short repeating figures especially familiar from the music of Philip Glass.

Unlike Glass, Kilar, at least in this piece, avoids the phase-shifting that can lend rhythmic interest even to simple repeating figuration. Indeed, I was surprised by how square much of this was, tending to fall into regular groups of four or eight notes. Occasional sudden disruptions of those patterns synchronized flawlessly. But Orawa lasts somewhat longer than its ideas warrant, and I would classify as belonging to a type of contemporary-sounding crowd-pleaser that many former radicals had learned to write by the 1980s. Still, one could hardly fault members of the audience for cheering at the end, although I wish that the composer had not written an actual shout into the final chord—the lone vocal contribution by the players and therefore, I think, a gratuitous one, even if it did allow the Criers to cry.

The second half opened with the one piece, apart from the Barber, that might be considered a 20th-century classic, if hardly a new-Classic one. Takemitsu was most active as a composer for film and TV, and his later concert music incorporates instruments and ideas from his native Japan. Yet he is probably best known in the US for a handful of relatively early works that reflect the composer’s interest at the beginning of his career in Western “avant-garde” writing. The Dorian Horizon of 1966 reflects that interest, avoiding anything that sounds identifiably Japanese. It also lacks any evident connection with the ideas of John Cage, with whom the composer had been associated. In fact it sounds more like the Polish “textural” music of the previous five or ten years.

Although its title refers to the Dorian mode of medieval Western chant, Takemitsu here supposedly inflects the notes of the Dorian scale in a manner inspired by modal jazz. I’ve never been able to hear anything modal in it, rather, it seems to play with a repertory of mostly quiet, delicately nuanced chords and brief melodic gestures that more often than not are produced through so-called extended playing techniques: harmonics, glissandos, and bowing near the bridge (sul ponticello). The printed score is accompanied by a precise seating chart intended to insure the spatial differention onstage between one group of eight players, described as “Harmonic Pitches,” and a nine-member set of  “Echoes,” among them three double basses. The Cryers observed this seating arrangement precisely, but Takemitsu also directed that the two groups be separated “as far as possible.” The separation was minimal in the confined performance space of Calderwood Hall, which also places the audience around the performers, a configuration that Takemitsu cannot have anticipated.

As a result, half or more of the audience was actually seated behind the “Echoes”—and closer to them than to the “Harmonic Pitches” which the composer evidently envisioned as being placed at the front of the stage in a conventional theater. My own seat placed me in the equivalent of the front row, but the “Echoes” remained close enough that they could not produce what I imagine was the intended far-away effect, which must be related in some way to the piece’s title. Another problem that became especially noticeable in this piece was the hall’s unforgiving dry acoustic. Despite very careful execution of Takemitsu’s details, and sensitive attention to his precisely crafted sonorities (especially by the three basses among the “Echoes”), the sounds often just did not blend together as I think the composer envisioned them. I am sorry, too, that in this quiet piece the inevitable tiny sounds of pages turning and the like, as well as the occasional louder coughing from the audience, could not help but distract from the intended contemplation of the still, small string sounds.

The last two works were more traditional, and although composed half a century apart had more than a little in common with one another. Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn ‘Saint Wenceslas’ (1914) by Czech composer Josef Suk, the pupil and son-in-law of Dvořák, was the earliest we heard. It was, however, one of the last works of its composer, written in a post-Romantic tonal idiom not entirely unlike that of Vaughan Williams. Expertly written for string orchestra, the drawn-out meditation received lovely shaping.

I confess, however, to being unmoved by either this densely soulful composition or the concluding song cycle by Hanns Eisler, another prolific mid-20th-century central European figure whose music includes many film scores and stage works. A student of Schoenberg in Vienna after World War I, by the late 1920s Eisler had become a convert to a more conservative musical idiom and to Communism, settling in East Germany in 1948 after he was expelled from the US for his political associations (having previously been exiled from Germany due to the Nazis). Completed in 1962, the year of his death, the Serious Songs are described as his last work, although the individual movements, which are performed without a break, go back to as early as 1936.

The title alludes to Brahms’s Four Serious Songs of 1896, that composer’s last vocal work. The poems, by Hölderlin, Leopardi, and others, are indeed overwhelmingly serious, bearing titles such as “Sadness” and “Despair” (nos. 2 and 3) but also “Twentieth [Communist] Party Congress” (no. 4). At times sounding like early atonal Schoenberg, the music at other times deliberately, and without any hint of irony, veers into a fully tonal style that would hardly be out of place in a song by Mozart or Schubert, as for the final line of no. 1 (“O song, be my kindly refuge”). That the cycle ends with a neo-Romantic passage that sounds like something from around 1900 struck me as something of an evasion. Nor did I find either the vocal writing, which is often deliberately matter-of-fact, or that for the instruments particularly compelling. The brief “Despair” (song no. 3) stood as an exception, rising in its four lines to the one moment of real drama in the cycle and incorporating the only hint (in the violins’ glissandos) that Eisler was aware of what Polish composers were writing just across the border at the time.

A Far Cry viewed from top tier some years back (BMInt Staff photo)

Perhaps greater familiarity with Eisler’s music would make it easier to appreciate the rest of these songs. Certainly they were well performed, although for this set the ensemble shifted its seating orientation, which left my own seat almost directly above the singer. Thus I can only imagine that his gestures were as expressive as his singing; the composer admonished the singer to avoid conventional expression, but he was probably thinking of overwrought operatic gestures, not the polished rhetoric with which Burton delivered these truly serious songs.

(Disclosure: Unterman was a pupil in two classroom courses that I taught at Juilliard several years ago.)

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.

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