in: Reviews

April 19, 2010

New England String Ensemble, Mezzo-Soprano Nims Examine Baroque from Within and Without

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With the sole exception of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, the program that conductor Federico Cortese and the New England String Ensemble served up on April 17 in Jordan Hall was an all-British one, ranging from Purcell to modern masters Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten and contemporary eminence George Benjamin. However, as Mr. Cortese’s introductory note explained, the real unifying factor was that each reflected an aspect—either inherently or by reflection—on the Baroque. As a secondary theme, the Tippett, Britten and Benjamin were early works in the composers’ outputs. (In all but the Tippett and Britten, the performance forces of NESE were considerably reduced.) The featured soloist was Abigail Nims, a young mezzo-soprano from Delaware, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus and home of Ohio Wesleyan University, where her parents teach voice and where she and her brother studied. She demonstrated two extremes of her expressive range in the Vivaldi, Purcell and Benjamin.

Michael Tippett wrote his Concerto for Double String Orchestra in 1938, at the age of 33, relatively early in his late-blooming career. Although structured more along classical lines, the division of the orchestra into two units recalls Baroque practices. The work’s outer movements display rhythmic vitality with irregularly deployed accents within a straightforward metrical scheme  and a largely horizontal contrapuntal development of melodic ideas. The slow central movement produces lovely organ-like sonorities and a theme suggested by a Scottish folk-tune, with a jarring suggestion of a blue note that re-emerges towards the end of the finale. The ambience here is somewhat pastoral with modalism employed analogously to Vaughan Williams. Cortese kept a lively and highly visible beat throughout, with full display of virtuoso independent-hand conducting technique. The ensemble and intonation of the orchestra were flawless. One sensed, however, an ultimate lack of urgency and bite in the music, even a flabbiness at the center of the finale, where attacks and textural contrasts were conspicuously absent. Tippett, we suspect, is more to blame than the performers. The double-orchestra conceit, except in obvious places where one half is silent, is more a visual than an aural phenomenon here, with basic musical materials common to both halves. Despite his assiduous study of musical counterpoint, Tippett had not yet achieved the mastery to make persuasive the counterpoint between the orchestral forces themselves.

It is only in recent decades that the sacred music of Antonio Vivaldi, the “red priest” of the six gazillion concerti, has entered into the canon of Baroque masterpieces. The Stabat Mater, written in 1711 at age 33, while it contains a number of licks and tropes that will be familiar to even the most casual consumer of his secular works, inhabits an entirely different emotional world, full of concentrated passion. Although the familiar text, depicting Mary at the foot of the cross and the speaker as an empathetic witness to her suffering, is used for devotional purposes, Vivaldi takes the opportunity—foreshadowing Haydn’s approach in the purely instrumental Seven Last Words—to create a dramatic structure, a fairly brief but slow-moving dramatic cantata. The ten verses Vivaldi set are arrayed in eight sections, with the music of sections 1-3 repeated for sections 4-6, and the final two sections, in which the text switches from third-person to first, as a coda to a rounded binary form. In this context, devices that in Vivaldi’s concerti create a piquant coloration—think of the staccato icicles in “Winter” of Four Seasons —are stabs of pain, as in section 7’s “me sentire vim doloris fac.” Ms. Nims brings to this drama a dusky, full tone with excellent pitch and vibrato control. The orchestral accompaniment in this mostly subdued work was well modulated, with special mention of Joshua Gordon’s and Carolyn Skelton’s sensitive support as cello and organ continuo, respectively.

The intensity of the Vivaldi did not let up after the intermission, when Ms. Nims returned for the exquisite agony of Dido’s suicide aria from Purcell’s Dido and Æneas. When Purcell died in 1695 at the age of 36, Britain lost a genius of such paramount ability that, although we no longer say that the light went out in British music for two centuries, a distinct dimming was perceptible. Dido and Æneas, written in 1689, amazingly for performance by amateurs, contains some of Purcell’s finest dramatic writing, the equal of Monteverdi in the annals of early opera. “When I am laid in earth” is crème de la crème of this, and Ms. Nims astutely judged the change in style and tone from the somewhat later Vivaldi to the more overtly theatrical affect of Dido’s lament. While we admired her sound quality, the occasions of singing in English music by one of the earliest great masters of English prosody highlighted an issue we had detected in her Latin in the Vivaldi, viz. the opera singer’s tendency to view consonants as mere punctuation between vowels. Without a text before us, we would not have understood much of what she sang. Nevertheless, she brought off this highly-charged music in highly-charged fashion, within the bounds of 17th-century expressive style; the same may be said for the accompanying strings. It should be further mentioned that NESE, out of respect for two of its musicians who are from Poland, dedicated this performance to the memory of those lost in the recent Polish air crash.

As a radical departure from the vocal style of the Baroque, Ms. Nims and NESE tackled the very different challenges of George Benjamin’s Upon Silence. Benjamin, now 50, does not seem to have developed as abundant a performance history in the US as some of his contemporaries, but he is widely respected in the UK and elsewhere. He achieved great early success: Ringed by a Flat Horizon, written at 20, was a hit at the Proms in 1980. Upon Silence, written in 1990 originally for mezzo with a consort of viols, was rescored by Benjamin a year later, using modern violas, cellos and basses. One of the concepts underlying the scoring is that the strings play old-style without vibrato (Mr. Gordon’s part must have obtained an exemption). The text is a poem by Yeats called Long-Legged Fly, in three ten-line stanzas depicting, in order, Julius Cæsar on military campaign, Helen of Troy as an adolescent, and Michelangelo at work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling; the common thread is silent self-absorption, and each stanza ends with the refrain “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/His [her] mind moves upon silence.” Benjamin has set this text in a mellifluous atonal idiom a bit suggestive of recent Peter Maxwell Davies; the vocal setting of the main body of each stanza is syllabic, while the refrain floats in melismatic runs and loops, reflecting, we suppose, the concentrated mind at work outside the realm of quotidian events. The strings shimmer and twine, and Ms. Nims seemed consciously restrained, we know not why; perhaps too much emphasis on the abstractedness of concentration and not enough on its intensity.

The program concluded with a popular early work of Benjamin Britten, his Simple Symphony, op. 4. This work was a double-dip into youth; the symphony was written when he was 20, but based on tunes he had conceived as early as age nine. The alliterative movement headings (“Boisterous Bourrée,” “Playful Pizzicato,” “Sentimental Sarabande.” “Frolicsome Finale”) suggest a Baroque suite, but by and large the writing is classically-based and full of faux-naïveté—the trio of the pizzicato scherzo in particular summons up Arthur Sullivan’s depictions of country airs. The finale conjures many fine coloristic effects in a sort of Mendelssohn-meets-Prokofiev with a dollop of English modalism on top. In this work Cortese and the orchestra achieved some really fine playing with decisive attacks and great élan.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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