in: Reviews

February 26, 2009

Bird Songs Old and New

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John McDonald, composer and pianist, has taught at Tufts University for 19 years. During that time, he has nurtured and promoted a generation of undergraduate and graduate student composers while composing and performing literally hundreds of new works of his own, from pièces d’occasion to large-scale ensembles. No less important, in the public view, has been his manifold and generous service to dozens of Boston-area composers in performing and propagating their music through recitals and group performances which he has tirelessly organized. For two years his home base has been the handsome and acoustically serene Distler Auditorium in the newly-built Granoff Music Center at Tufts.

The Mockingbird Trio is a collaboration of old friends, well-established Bostonians, that has been in existence now for five years and consists of McDonald, the contralto Elizabeth Anker, and the violist Scott Woolweaver. On February 26 they paid tribute to five years’ good feeling with some fine old music (songs and piano pieces by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler), some of the songs they had premiered previously (by Tom Fettke, Peter Aldins, and Janice Giteck), and two new works of major proportions. Howard Frazin, of the Longy School and Composers in Red Sneakers, was on hand to hear his song “The Wren,” on a text by Denise Levertov, which was also a tribute to the poet who taught for several years at Tufts. Levertov’s work also provided the text for McDonald’s song “The Mockingbird of Mockingbirds,” in which the protagonist is a “lord of a thousand songs,” as all of us know about this southern bird which extended its range into New England less than a century ago. The composer prefaced it with a short piano prelude called Forerunner.

The ornithological theme was emphatically brought home in A Field Guide to Backyard Birds, a cycle of six songs on her own texts by Francine Trester, who has taught at Tufts and currently teaches at the Berklee College of Music. These delightful and inventive pieces showed an abundance of expressive tonal harmony, sometimes sounding like Barber, or Copland, or even Gershwin, but colored with a bittersweet chromaticism that was Trester’s own. The vocal-instrumental dialogue varied from song to song, including spoken text through much of the fourth number, “Tom Turkey,” and it was a pleasant realization that nowhere in the cycle were there any of the ordinary imitative effects that listeners come to expect in bird music. This cycle should have a wide appeal to performers and audiences alike.

After the intermission came another premiere, of McDonald’s New York Wedding Tucket for viola and piano, written for the wedding of friends and combining sketches and fragments of earlier works that were psychologically associated but that did not relate to the concert’s prevailing ornithology. The piece included a lot of low-register piano to offset the viola’s higher-altitude gestures, but, as the composer mentioned to me afterwards, “It wasn’t easy to write a fanfare for viola.” Another new work by McDonald, written for the trio, followed: From the Fall of a Sparrow, “A six-part setting of excerpts from Sandra Steingraber’s 2008 Orion magazine article.” The six parts, honoring the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, a significant urban pest introduced from Europe, celebrate “Where they live,” “What the evolutionary ecologists say,” “Where they came from,” “What they eat,” “What they say,” and “The mystery of their worldwide disappearance,” with an ecological envoi that may be ominous: “The sparrow is the new canary.”

The concert continued with outdoor songs by Brahms and Schubert (I had not realized, hearing Brahms’s Feldeinsamkeit, op. 86 no. 2, that Mahler had almost literally quoted four bars from this song in the sixth movement of his Third Symphony, bars 9-11) and finally Mahler’s Lob des hohen Verstandes (“Praise of Intellect”, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn). The ornithological motif was triumphant to the end in this memorable comedy about the competition between the cuckoo and the nightingale, refereed by the donkey.

Elizabeth Anker and John McDonald gave the final number as an improvisation, on Francine Trester’s “Mourning Dove” heard earlier in the evening. Scott Woolweaver, from the back of the hall, provided some fine A-string harmonics as bird calls, but from some other species.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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