IN: Reviews

Lisztomania in JP


AKA Japidol Japidolskij*

Contrary to groundless expectation, we spent a rather delightful evening at one of the musical Thursdays presented at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain on January 13. We had previously attended a piano recital there by Artem Belogurov a number of months back and were struck even then by the potential and realized charm of these hitherto obscure — and unjustly so! — presentations. On that occasion, Belogurov presented a fine program of Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart. We were lured to the site then, by the inclusion of additional works by someone named Schemmer. Speak of obscurity.

Do we digress?

First of all, St. John’s is a grand old English Country-style, Gothic Revival church located in Sumner Hill, surely The Best Kept Secret of JP. The Hill, just off Centre Street, is the proverbial oasis of Peace and Quiet, with beautiful old homes, zealously maintained, the hill dropping off to reveal a spectacular panorama of Boston proper. At night, the glitt’ry winter heaven, the glitt’ry skyline of B’town, the old homes, glowing and cozy, and the looming Gothic silhouette conduce to poetry. We would imagine a different but equally lovely poem, strolling to St. John’s on a warm spring evening. And we are likely to return and find out for ourselves.

Best Kept Secret is surely the way the neighbors would keep it. So, yet more trodden toes are to be anticipated, should we succeed in launching a mudslide of new concert goers to these “JP Concerts.” ( or here,  if you please)

Inside, what was so intriguing? Simply put, this was ingenious programming, early off the starting blocks for Liszt Year 2011, competently presented, and leaving us at the end with the feeling: gee, we’re glad we stopped in. We hadn’t known this stuff, and, dagnabbit, we’ve enjoyed hearing it.

The evening star, then, was The Concept. Kudos, we presume, are due first to music director Peter Terry (nods also to “Organizer” Ken Brooks,  Music Director Linda Kernohan, and the rector, the Rev. Anne Fowler). The program, “Lisztomania” was some sort of double musical acrostic, with pairs of musical arrangements, paired. Thus, we had three Liebesträume (Numbers 1,2,3) in their familiar piano solo versions, paired with their settings as songs. Then we had settings of four Victor Hugo poems, each in two arrangements, each pair being separated by four to seven years. So the fascination lay in hearing how the composer adapted song to independent work for pianoforte solo, or how he altered his piano accompaniment for the same text over the course of years. The common denominator in this latter case is a more restrained pianism. We suppose Liszt realized — intimations of mortality — that some poor bastard other than himself would eventually have to play them.

The twinned twinings were preceded by three delightful settings of Schiller. The program noted that these Schillers were also second growth, the first being, hélas, omitted. But we did get the picture.

In addition to Concept was Realization, also kudos worthy. To wit, all texts were provided, both in English translation and original. We are always astonished at a singer’s excellent enunciation, when provided with the printed text. Funny thing. And, all the evening’s singers excelled in this sphere, by the way. But it’s never enough.

Terry assembled a rather large group of intrepid artistes for this venture, there being three pianists — Janice Weber, Artem Belogurov and Rachel Hassinger — and three singers, Sopranos Farah Lewis, Meena Malik and exotically yclept Yakov Zamir, countertenor. And, to speak of pairings, Zamir is none other than Terry. Mirrors reflecting mirrors.

Weber is a well known and welcome quantity on our piano scene and it is good news that she is ramping up for many more concerts and much more Liszt, locally and nationally, this season and next. Janice (we may call you Janice, mayn’t we?) is a thorough musician with a very strong suit in virtuosity, so it is always fun to hear and watch her riffle through the Lisztean thickets. One longed only perhaps for a little more coy rubato in her renderings. Why is it that performers are often leery of doing more of what they are do well? Answer? Because they discount the need to project out to the listener that which is inherent and obvious, the piece being so numbingly familiar … to them.

Hassinger accompanied Malik in the Hugo poems (earlier versions) with sensitivity and finesse. As Belogurov, a young artist in the ascendance, is a close professional associate of your correspondent, it would be an obvious journalistic breech to remark upon the cool elegance and proficiency of his pianism.

All three pianists coaxed large, good, and convincing sound out of the most improbable and diminutive of Mason & Hamlins, vintage 1915. Astonishing, really. And could we wave a magic wand, we would surely wish a fine concert grand upon St. John’s, along with a new roof.

As to our songbirds. Lewis performed the Schiller selections in a luscious and velvety soprano, redolent really of a rich mezzo, and with superb German diction. Donnerwetter! We advised her to rush home and master “Morgen.” She might reduce us to tears. For all the right reasons, naturally.

Malik’s soprano provided a piquant contrast in its purity, quite nicely matched to the (earlier of the) Hugo settings. Why we should think purity of tone is appropriate to these texts mystifies, actually. Read them. They are drenched — Zut alors — in zex zex zex; and yet, Franzls treatments are so Gallic that he bamboozles us into misconstruing the frankly steamy for the virginal. Oh, those French. And in setting the Schiller, Liszt seemed so quintessentially Germanic, so innocent. Just like a Völkerwanderung. But, in turning to the Hugo, he is French French French, tout court. Clearly what he didn’t absorb on Parisian boulevards, he soaked up between the sheets at Marie d’Agoult’s.

And now we come to the countertenor. As you may have surmised, the Musical Director, Terry, employs the pseudonym Yakov Zamir on stage. Everyone into the act, huh?

It was announced that Mr. Terry would not be making introductory remarks as Mr. Zamir was conserving his voice.  Was this not, we wondered, a trifle de trop?  More so, in the context of  a countertenor.  But then…what an unusual vocal instrument we heard.  Mr. Zamir has an arresting, dead-on timbre, often with strong tenor “tones” (to dip into oenophile lingo), or– try this one–the after-blush of a mezzo locomotive.  It seems to us that there is something unusual going on here in terms of vocal production. Zamir’s voice sounds nothing like the usual countertenor that a baritone or bass produces with “head tones.”  Again, the enunciation was excellent, the delivery exciting, musical, dramatic.  There was the occasional unevenness of tone which we hope can be worked out.  In all, a ballsy countertenor, to be sure. Mr. Zamir had better find himself some Handel operas.

Switching back to Music Director, (the mind reels), Mr. Terry’s ingenuity remains in high ferment, with intriguing plans for the rest of  Liszt 2011.  In an extended “debriefing,” it became evident to us that he is a serious student of music, not just a pretty voice. A formidable amount of research and inquiry lies behind his conceptions.  We would certainly love to see Mr. Terry mount a similar format covering, “Liszt and Petrarch” or, “Liszt Does Songs Without Words,” evoking Mendelssohn obviously.  But in the case of Mendelssohn there never were words.  But Liszt created these two books of piano solos from his own earlier Lieder.

What they did for love. Regrettably, these valiant artists deserved a far larger audience. The take from a sad little collection basket was not a thing of joy. We would wish for some sort of cult success for these plucky presentations. In what is tantamount to a sound set for Bela Lugosi, one would hope that this sort of “Classical” could recapture the high ground: it has all the cachet of true counterculture. Courage, mes chers!

* Japidol Japidolskij is the ring name (nom de plume) of composer Tony Schemmer, who wishes to draw the cloak of anonymity tight whilst venturing guilelessly into the swamps of music criticism. God knows he has already trod enough tender toes through innate interpersonal artlessness. And so, Schemmer is desirous of remaining in the Northeast at an undisclosed location for the indefinite future and fervently hopes to maintain tolerable relationships with the performance community in Boston. As to his fellow composers, there is simply not enough poison to go around. Schemmer had initially thought of staying safely way, way far afield, submitting only a series of “Nights at the Met” but, upon second thought, didn’t want to alienate Mr. Gelb, as he does have one opera in his œuvre. Hope springs eternal. Schemmer is a graduate of Yale College in Theory and Composition.  He subsequently studied jazz with George Russell and at Berklee College of Music, and conducting with Richard Pittman.  His music has been performed in St. Petersburg, Russia; Odessa, Ukraine; Italy; Ireland; Salzburg, Austria; New York City; and throughout the more discerning of the lower 48.  Local performances are annoyingly frequent and usually in insignificant locations. The composer is also the author of the celebrated “Odessa Bulletins,” a chronicle of adventures surrounding musical performances in the Ukraine, in something like thirty-seven installments. The Intelligencer has threatened to publish them, if ever completed.

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