in: Reviews

March 16, 2011

Wordsong more than a Concert

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Wordsong gave its first public, “ticketed” event at the Goethe Institute on March 13, and its audience of forty unanimously deemed it a success. I don’t remember a “concert” where people were as engaged, or had as much fun; but, of course, this event was much more than a concert.

Wordsong is the brainchild of Tom Schnauber, chair of the Performing Arts Department at Emmauel College, and Howard Frazin, former president of Composers in Red Sneakers. The idea is to present a text and to have several composers write pieces using this text. While this sounds, perhaps, dry on paper (or the internet), it was anything but, this past Sunday. The text was the rather odd poem, Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock, written in 1905 by Wallace Stevens. For all four settings, Wordsong wisely used the terrific baritone Aaron Engebreth and fearless pianist Alison d’Amato, co-directors of the Florestan Recital Project, that champions song recitals. Together they gave beautiful, haunting, fun performances — twice — of four disparate yet wonderful settings of this poem:

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

If the audience had come to relax, they soon realized they were at the wrong concert. First, they were asked to write a few words or phrases about their “visceral reaction” to the poem. Many had not been asked to do so in decades, but it seemed everyone was game. Then, the four new songs got the first playing, with a minute or so between each so that the audience could write about their reactions to the music. The first piece was Tom Schnauber’s, which begins with two dissonant notes which get progressively louder, until a haunting ending. It seemed perfect; no more settings were needed; I, at least, was happy. But then there was Felicia Sandler’s song, with a dramatic Engebreth looking terrified and spooked, with music to match. Howard Frazin’s song which started off like a (good) Broadway number, changing midway into a major key at “people” and becoming dreamy at “only here and there.” Nick Vines’s setting, a fun melodrama, was full of melismas, lots of repetition on words that was spooky in its own way (“baboon,” “Tiger”). Engebreth looked a villain until the discombobulated word, “red,” finally came as a relief. Each song became my favorite when I heard it. Luckily, the songs were all recorded last weekend, so eventually I’ll get a chance to mull over which one might become so.

In an unusual move, wine and cheese were served at intermission, which gave everyone the chance to mingle with the composers. It was a unusually friendly affair. By the time many had enjoyed the wine, they were ready for a relaxed second half during which people talked about what they liked about what the composers had done, and the pieces were played again. Such enthusiasm! Engebreth and d’Amato were great the second time around, and the audience even more engaged. It was as if a roomful of strangers had fallen under the spell of a musical parlor game. No one would have minded hearing all four songs again. And again. Wordsong is a great idea, with, I hope, a great future.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

5 Comments

  1. It’s Frazin, not Franzin!

    Comment by Deryck — March 16, 2011 at 5:23 pm

  2. Great review — but it’s Howard Frazin, not Howard Franzin

    Comment by David — March 16, 2011 at 8:15 pm

  3. Thanks for the corrections

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 16, 2011 at 11:11 pm

  4. So sorry Howard. Really loved your song. Great concert!

    Comment by susan miron — March 18, 2011 at 7:41 am

  5. Love the review, makes me wish I had gone to the event.

    Just one more correction: the poem has a typo in line 2, should be “night-gowns”

    Comment by Klingsor — March 18, 2011 at 11:55 am

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