“Moonstruck: Myth, Poetry, and Percussion” was the intriguing title (alternative, “The Sound of Wild Imagining”) of a Monadnock Music Festival concert presented on Saturday, August 14, in the Peterborough (NH) Town House. What drew me originally to this concert was the opportunity to hear the amazing soprano Tony Arnold perform three of the most significant song cycles of the 20th century: Milton Babbitt’s Philomel (1964), Luciano Berio’s Circles (1960), and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21 (1912).
Due to the harpist’s illness, however, Circles was not performed. Giving Ms. Arnold a rest, in its place, its two percussionists, Todd Meehan and Douglas Perkins, performed Iannis Zenakis’s Rebonds (1987-89), Maricio Kagel’s Rrrrrrr (1981-82), and Andy Pape’s CaDance 4 2 (1989). The two percussionists formed their duo about four years ago, sometime after meeting as Master’s Degree students at Yale. Meehan now teaches at Baylor University while Perkins, who lives in Concord, NH, freelances. They are just terrific—skilled, thoughtful, modest, and good-humored, and with the energy to haul around their huge battery of instruments.
Zenakis’s Rebonds is actually a piece for solo percussion in two movements that may be played in any order; they each took turns, and “B” preceded “A.” “B” is for tuned kettledrums and woodblocks, in which a tactus slowly morphs into a Latin beat. “A,” which adds the bass drum, is slower in tempo at the beginning, with a slow accelerando to a vigorous ending. Kagel’s Rrrrrrr comprises six movements whose titles suggest the fun they surely gave it: “Railroad Drama,” “Rigaudon,” Ranz de Vaches,” “Ruf,” “Rim Shots and Co.,” and “Rutscher (Gallop).” CaDance 4 2, for modified drum sets, was apparently the first piece they ever played together, but it was frankly too long. Lacking Festival program notes about any of the music (only on the performers), one can only suspect that this is actually a combination of Pape’s CaDance Four, and CaDance Two, for modified drum sets, both written in the same year. No matter: the players are to be congratulated for their initiative and energy, not to mention their expert playing. Every good wish for the growing success of this duo.
Tony Arnold’s performance of these two classics was all that one could have hoped for, and then some. Here again, she amply demonstrates through her obvious intelligence, rich, supple and elastic voice, and dramatic delivery that she is at the service of contemporary music, on stage not to charm or entertain, but rather to warm us to this difficult music and present it in a manner that could only deeply satisfy the composer. Uniquely in Arnold’s favor are her earlier studies in piano, woodwinds, and orchestral conducting; in her hands, the voice becomes a part of the instrumental ensemble, while at the same time remaining distinct in order to project the texts. And project she does indeed. Unfortunately.\, Arnold has not often been heard in the Boston area, although in January, 2009, she and violinist Movses Pogossian gave a stunning performance of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments at the Concord Free Public Library.
Babbitt’s Philomel, written together with the poet John Hollander for Bethany Beardslee, is an excellent match for Arnold’s capabilities. Based on Ovid’s interpretation of the Greek legend of violence and retribution, the work is for soprano and electronic sounds captured on tape. Arnold conveys the poetry (senseless unless you know the story for which it serves as commentary) with impassioned zeal, “thrashing through the woods of Thrace” (the poem’s frequent refrain). She is sometimes at one with the voice on the tape, and sometimes soaring above it, a dramatic, lone voice, rising above the voice of suffering.
Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire has had many notable interpreters, to which Arnold’s interpretation is a welcome addition. Schoenberg’s setting of 21 selections from Albert Giraud’s French poem of the same name, translated into German by Otto Erich Hartleben, is now a classic. As they describe their own works, other composers often refer to “the Pierrot ensemble”: flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, cello, and piano, here well performed respectively by Laura Gilbert (the Festival’s co-artistic director), Steve Jackson, Curt Macomber, Elizabeth Anderson, and Donald Berman. The soprano sings, speaks, and combines both modes with the composer’s indicated relative pitches (sprechtstimme); Arnold smoothly negotiates all three. The texts are dark, moody, slightly sardonic; and she projects them with resonant, full-blown vowels and consonants and clear musical and literary understanding. My only complaint was that in my seat in the middle of the hall she was sometimes overpowered by the ensemble, particularly the piano with its lid fully opened. This in no way detracted, however, from my overall strong feeling that this concert was definitely well worth the quick turn-around trip from the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood.