The “SeptemberFest” series of concerts at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge came to a satisfying conclusion on Saturday night, September 25th. As with the other programs, the evening featured works of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981), but whereas the preceding concerts were entirely concerned with solo or chamber music, this one called upon the Longy Chamber Orchestra, expertly conducted by Julian Pellicano, for all three works.
Likely the shortest opera in the canon, Barber’s nine-minute A Hand of Bridge, op. 35 sets a libretto by his life partner and fellow composer Gian Carlo Menotti. A boon, no doubt, to directors of student opera programs everywhere, it requires the absolute minimum of staging — a card table and chairs — and a cast of only four — soprano (Geraldine), mezzo (Sally), tenor (Bill), baritone (David). The characters’ interaction hardly extends beyond announcing the cards they put down, but the interspersed interior monologues show us something of their contrasting personalities. Sally provides most of the humor in the opera: her every monologue begins with “I want to buy that hat of peacock feathers!” Her husband, Bill, is thinking of his mistress Cymbaline and realizing that his adultery has put him in a doubly uncomfortable position: Sally might have found him out, and Cymbaline may be consorting with as many as seven other men whose names he rattles off. Geraldine is the most sympathetic of the characters, feeling she no longer has anyone to love or be loved by, except her dying mother whom she is only now “learning to love”. And finally David, outwardly a successful enough businessman, is in fact dissatisfied with his job and particularly loathes his boss Mr. Pritchett (“the bastard”); he fantasizes about stupendous wealth and a life of forbidden indulgence, but in the end realizes that even if he did become that rich, he’d still end up playing bridge with Sally and Bill or even Mr. Pritchett. The singers, under the accomplished guidance of Donna Roll, took full advantage of the fine opportunities for vocal characterization. Mezzo Alexandra Dietrich enjoyed the flightiness of Sally, the sort of role usually assigned to the soprano. As Bill, tenor Fred VanNess, Jr. convincingly demonstrated his casual womanizing as well as his angst about his situation. Geraldine gets the most rhapsodic vocal writing as she voices her yearning; soprano Sherri Snow conveyed this well without ever crossing the line into mawkish self-pity. David is simultaneously smarmy and straitlaced; baritone Seth Grondin found the subtle comic possibilities inherent in David’s self-contradictions. The accompaniment encompassed varied styles illustrating the four characters, from bluesy jazz to arioso, and the orchestra under Mr. Pellicano rendered each with authenticity.
Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24, was commissioned by soprano Eleanor Steber and Serge Koussevitsky and premiered by them in 1948 with the Boston Symphony. It sets a lovely nostalgic text by writer James Agee (1909-1955) in the style of the child he was in 1915 with the occasional incursion of the adult’s reflection and poet’s vocabulary (“aestival”, “stertorous”). The text is a smorgasbord for the senses and Barber admirably enhances this quality with instrumental color and melodic shapes. Soprano Karyl Ryczek, a member of Longy’s faculty, gave a heartfelt performance of the piece, emphasizing its universal qualities that transcend the South and the year 1915. After an orchestral introduction rivaling Copland in its intangible “American feel”, the singer enters in a lovely “drowsy summer evening” duet with the flute, setting the scene with a rocking figure that pervades most of the first section. A marked contrast occurs when the second section begins with a streetcar shattering the calm. Though Ms. Ryczek sang with heightened drama, her consonants unfortunately did not follow suit and were consequently swallowed up at times by the more forceful accompaniment. Serenity returned in the third section with a wonderful evocation by the high strings of locusts and one of the vocal high points (literally and figuratively): a piano high B-flat and A on the challenging vowels of “blue dew”. This was magically rendered by Ms. Ryczek. The final section was tender and ravishing as the writer reminisces about his nearest and dearest, becoming impassioned as he thinks of those no longer with him. The soprano gets one more “purple patch” in her final phrase, again something of a vocal high-wire act which Ms. Ryczek negotiated with delicacy and tender, loving care. I sensed more than a few misty eyes in the audience from there to the end of the brief orchestral postlude. Sometimes over the course of the piece, the orchestra occasionally achieved less than ideal intonation, but overall their sensitivity, and Mr. Pellicano’s, to the singer and to color and atmosphere in the text were commendable.
After intermission, the concert concluded with Robert Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor, op. 120. The symphony’s 1841 premiere met with a cool response, likely due in part to its refusal to follow traditional symphonic structure, operating more often as sequences of variations on its main themes. And though the four movements are clearly demarcated by tempo and meter changes, they are played without a break in the manner of a symphonic “fantasy” (Schumann’s original desired appellation). The orchestra and Mr. Pellicano gave us an introduction full of portent and a crisp, rhythmically incisive main theme, alternating pleasingly with a soothing legato second theme. In the development there was an exciting accelerando/crescendo handled with precision, leading to a thrilling conclusion. The second-movement Romanza is marked by its duet for flute and cello at the interval of an octave. This is a challenge to keep in tune the entire time, and if such did not always happen, the two players nonetheless played lyrically and with lovely tone. In the agitated Scherzo the crisp ensemble again paid dividends; yet in the Trio the syncopated string accompaniment needed a clearer rhythmic profile. The main theme of the first movement is heard again in the last movement with new syncopated variation, dominating the movement and leading to a coda. This begins with what seems almost sure to be the final stretto until it speeds up yet again. In this final passage the tight control of Mr. Pellicano and the players was impressive and led to a spine-tingling and triumphant conclusion. Bravi to all the performers and The Longy School for presenting many lesser-known works of Robert Schumann and Samuel Barber alongside famous ones, and doing it all so well.