IN: Reviews

Stimulating Presentation of Underplayed Repertoire


“Trends in German and US Contemporary Soprano Music” was an eclectic vocal recital. Despite a dubious use of the word “contemporary” (the newest piece dated from 1972), the program at the Goethe-Institut on November 13 was a stimulating presentation of underplayed repertoire.

It opened with Webern’s op. 25 and op. 23. Both are settings of poems by Hildegard Jone, a painter and sculptress who was a close friend of Anton Webern. Jennifer Ashe sang in a precise manner, but not without attention to the lyricism of the material. Brett Hogdon brought out the long lines in the accompaniment. Their interpretation emphasized Webern’s connection to his predecessors in the lieder repertoire; it would have fit comfortably alongside any of his Viennese predecessors.

Ashe remained for Helmut Lachenmann’s temA, joined by Meghan Miller (flute) and Benjamin Schwartz (cello). The piece’s title alludes to the German word for theme, but also for breath (Atem). It opens with a long (human) breath, which is then exchanged between the instruments. One could certainly look at the piece as a sort of “theme and variations.”

The ensemble played with a fine ear for the vast range of timbres they were asked to conjure. Cello harmonics rose out of flute breaths, flute breaths attacked the singer’s wordless pleas, the singer shushed her uncooperative partners. Their care showed off the composer’s aural imagination, but also his dramatic and expressive gifts. Though the piece suggested a single fractured personality to this reviewer, many audience members seemed more bemused than anything by the quirky instrumental interplay. Laughter was not uncommon. One audience member commented during intermission, “I loved sitting in the front row for that. It was so much fun!”

Carlisle Floyd’s “Flower and Hawk” concluded the program. It is a monodrama in which Eleanor of Aquitaine recounts her life from captivity in Salisbury Tower. Her story is approached as a series of memories, with piano leitmotifs connecting the larger narrative. Dunja Pechstein’s performance did not yearn too strongly for the limelight, lending the piece its needed intimacy. Michael Strauss provided the supporting presence that such a role demands.

Surprising as it may sound, Floyd’s piece was the truly the most peculiar on the program. The passage of time has placed us in a world where Webern sounds like Schubert and avant-garde shock tactics are met with delight. Yet, who in their right mind today would set out to write an extended soliloquy on the hardships of being Queen?

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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  1. I attended the first half of this program, and appreciate this thoughtful review. I’d like to add that I’ve never been more impressed by the sheer technical abilities and vocal acrobatics of any other singer. Jennifer Ashe is a vocal force to be reckoned with. Additionally–perhaps more importantly–I don’t know the last time I found any performance as captivating as this one of temA. It was stunningly adventurous and personal, communicative at a level deeper than that of words or pitches. Congratulations to all of these fine musicians.

    Comment by M. — November 19, 2008 at 4:23 pm

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