in: Reviews

September 12, 2011

Effective Showcase for Longy

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The second concert of Longy School of Music’s SeptemberFest 2011 on Saturday, September 10, encompassed music created between 1816 and 2002 that provided an effective showcase for Longy faculty members as well as recent alumni. The first half consisted entirely of music by Claude Debussy in several genres. Vocal music by a wide range of composers made up the second half.

The program opened with two early solo piano pieces of Debussy. From the first note, Eleanor Perrone created the dreamy mood of Nocturne with lush tone and “wet” pedaling in her exquisite performance. In the highly contrasted Danse, originally titled “Tarantelle styrienne,” which derives much of its interest from switching between 3/4 and 6/8 time, some occasional “wet” pedaling was less helpful, but the technical command was assured and the dance feeling ever present.

D’Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano, and Brian Moll, piano, provided three of Debussy’s songs, each from a different period of his career. Green (1886) had both innocence and sensuality. Pour ce que Plaisance est morte (Because Pleasure is Dead, 1904) was altogether darker and harmonically richer, Debussy’s exploitation of the singer’s lowest register underscoring the mournful mood. Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons (Christmas of the Homeless Children, 1915), the only instance of Debussy’s writing his own text, is a passionate denunciation of the suffering of children in World War I. Fortunato and Moll were appropriately vehement but also tender in the brief moments of repose.

Late Debussy is generally more mystical and austere than the rest of his output, but his last completed work, Violin Sonata in G Minor, from 1917, played by guest artist Bayla Keyes, violin, and Robert Merfeld, piano, has voluptuous touches, recalling his earlier style. Both musicians were sensitive to this, Keyes in particular incorporating a number of elegant portamenti in her playing. It was not an ideally equal partnership, however; Merfeld was occasionally reticent to the point of harmonies not fully emerging or being overbalanced by the violin. Additionally, there were several chordal passages in the second and third movements in which he was less than accurate.

After intermission, a bevy of singers and pianists came out; all sat at the rear of the stage except whichever pair was performing, presumably to let the program proceed efficiently. And in the interest of efficiency, I will write about performances one duo at a time though the actual order had them alternating.

Carol Mastrodomenico, soprano, and Libor Dudas, piano, opened with Franz Schubert’s Der Jüngling an der Quelle (The Youth by the Spring). Dudas supplied a pellucid spring, and Mastrodomenico sang with sweet purity. Only the sighs to the youth’s beloved, Luise, seemed a bit extroverted. Later the duo returned with Hugo Wolf’s In dem Schatten meiner Locken (In the Shadow of My Tresses), giving it a delicious, coquettish charm. And finally, they performed Enrique Granados’s Gracia mia (My Graceful One), a paean to the beauty of the poet’s beloved, with high spirits and infectious enjoyment. Dudas once or twice was enthusiastic enough momentarily to cover Mastrodomenico, but the duo carried the audience off with their élan.

Baritone Bradford Gleim collaborated first with Robert Merfeld in two Hugo Wolf songs, Die Nacht (The Night) and Abschied (Farewell). Considering that his whole life long, Wolf loathed the music of Brahms, the first song had a surprisingly Brahmsian flavor. Perhaps it was Wolf’s unconscious response to Josef von Eichendorff’s poem, the gist of which is that night is like a quiet sea, able to blur boundaries between opposing elements and tangle them up. Gleim and Merfeld maintained an expressive ebb and flow that illustrated the text: “Even if my heart and mouth now are closed . . . still, at the bottom of my heart there remains the gentle throbbing of those waves.” Abschied, a hilariously merciless caricature of carping critics, has a certain irony, given that Wolf found employment in Vienna for several years as a (frequently acerbic) critic himself. This performance was a qualified success; there were a couple ill-coordinated entrances, and the piano part’s alternating octaves and chords at the climax proved troublesome. However, the pair’s comic storytelling skills ultimately made the difference. (The supplied translations incorrectly attributed the text to Eichendorff; the poem is by Eduard Mörike.)

Gleim made one more appearance, with Brian Moll at the piano, to perform Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Youth and Love” from the Songs of Travel. It was sung and played handsomely, with the piano’s steady pulse illustrating the determination of a young man to see the world but not be sidetracked by worldly pleasures.

Mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux (a current Master’s candidate) and 2011 alumna Sarah Troxler, piano, gave us the three Métamorphoses of Francis Poulenc, setting the quirky poetry of his friend Louise de Vilmorin. Whereas the first text, Reine des mouettes (Queen of the Seagulls) is merely peculiar, the last, Paganini, delights in blending entirely random words and concepts — at Poulenc’s breakneck prestissimo. Michaux and Troxler were crisp and clear, making it sound easy. The central song, the more often performed C’est ainsi que tu es (That’s How You Are), received an affectionate, seductive rendition.

Three Emily Dickinson settings were performed by Karyl Ryczek, soprano, the first two with Wayman Chin and the last with Brian Moll. Ryczek and Chin infused “The soul selects her own society” as set by Robert Baksa — a 1966 composition that must have been considered very retro for its embrace of tonality and melody — with warmth and tenderness. “The Shining Place,” as set by Lee Hoiby (who died earlier this year) opens atypically extrovertedly (numerous exclamation points), the cascading piano part depicting the poet’s ecstasy, and closes more inwardly with Dickinson’s idea of Paradise: “the fame/That They—pronounce my name—”. Ryczek and Chin seemed in perfect sympathy with poet and composer. In the final setting, If, Longy’s Vartan Aghababian used Dickinson’s famous poem “If I can stop one heart from breaking”, to create a gem of beautiful simplicity. Ryczek’s and Moll’s delivery was accordingly direct, simple, and touching.

Soprano Jayne West, with Robert Merfeld, performed three strongly contrasted songs over the program’s second half. West’s singing was largely sunny, the darker undercurrent only gradually emerging, particularly in the harmonies of her last phrase, in Robert Schumann’s Wehmut (Nostalgia) from Liederkreis, Op. 39, a song superficially happy but masking unsuspected depths of anguish. Merfeld continued this in the piano postlude, relishing the expressive chords. Later the duo returned with Gabriel Fauré’s La lune blanche luit dans les bois (The White Moon Shines Through the Trees) from La bonne chanson. They created an exquisite atmosphere of quiet but intense bliss as summed up in the final phrase: “It is the hour of ecstasy.” Later, West and Merfeld concluded the evening with musical theater: Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark, text by Ira Gershwin: the ship carries every kind of treasure, but unless it also carries the narrator’s own true love, it’s meaningless. The song received a warm rendering with a gentle swing evoking a ship on the sea.

At first glance this program might have appeared random, even disorganized, but placed in the context of its title (The Changing Muse) and of SeptemberFest 2011’s theme — transformations — its mosaic made sense. It displayed transformations of style over one composer’s career; it pointed up changes to the German lied from Schubert to Schumann to Wolf as well as the evolution of the Frenchmélodie from Fauré to Poulenc; and it highlighted the diverse perspectives of different composers on a single poet. In addition to sensitive performances, Longy’s ongoing SeptemberFest gives us food for thought.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

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