in: Reviews

October 2, 2011

Exhilarating Time Cycles from Musica Viva

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The first thing that caught our attention as we entered the Tsai Performance Center for the opening concert of Boston Musica Viva’s 43rd season on September 30 was the very diminutive Kawai baby grand piano on the stage. What’s with that? we wondered. Answers appear below.

BMV presented an item from its very first season, the chamber arrangement of Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle, as well as the premiere of a David Rakowski piece, and two other works from this century, a string trio by Mark Berger and a flute-clarinet duo by David Froom. The title Music Director Richard Pittman gave to the program was “Time Cycles,” pointing to a theme that carried from the Foss to most of the other works on the program.

The program began with String Trio No. 2 by Mark Berger, perhaps best known locally as a violist, but a composer of considerable accomplishment as well. This trio, written in 2007 for Music at Eden’s Edge, a North Shore series on which Berger often performs, was inspired by the poem The Dry Salvages by T.S. Eliot, the third of his Four Quartets. The title (the third word pronounced, according to the poet, to rhyme with “assuages”) refers to a lighthouse-bearing rock outcropping in Gloucester, where Eliot’s family had a summer home. Thus, the North Shore connection was a natural tie-in to MEE, but for purposes of the BMV program one had to dig deeper. The poem’s burden is one of time: Eliot’s reflections on his childhood (there are also references to his native St. Louis), one’s place in relation to the past, and how the dry materialism of his rejected Yankee Unitarian heritage stood in the way of what he saw as a right relation to the past.

Berger’s trio intersperses between the “regular” four movements three very brief interludes, each of the seven total sections bearing a heading taken from the poem. In pre-performance remarks, the composer said he was no Eliot scholar, and his approach to the piece would seem to bear him out: the opening movement was largely pictorial, with a craggy opening and gentler afterthoughts, a Debussy-like interplay of rocks and waves; in the first interlude, we could hear the fog coming in on little cat fifths. Some of the music was very attractive to listen to; as a string player himself, Berger is adept at calling forth a range of articulations; his use of harmonics and sharp pizzicati are very effective, though with many movements rather short (the second interlude gnomic in the extreme), it was sometimes hard to sense their structural significance. The third and fourth movements (fifth and seventh sections) were more fully realized and yielded some very gratifying moments, such as an extended pizzicato dialogue (trilogue?). The last movement contained the only fast music, slowing eventually to accommodate reminiscences from the earlier ones and an attempt to invoke bells described in the poem (not easy to do with strings, unless you try for pizzicato harmonics, which from personal experience we can tell you that string players stoutly resist). Still, despite its somewhat oblique relation to the meat of Eliot’s poem, this was a decent piece of work, worth hearing. The very able performers, Bayla Keyes, violin, Peter Sulski, viola, and Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello, put considerable backbone into their reading, though there was occasional wan execution of the harmonics.

The first half of the program ended with the premiere of David Rakowski’s Thickly Settled for clarinet (William Kirkley), violin (Keyes), cello (Müller-Szeraws) and piano (Geoffrey Burleson), which Pittman informed the audience is the third work BMV has commissioned from Rakowski. The title, derived from those road signs one sees on rural roads to warn of impending hamlets, turns out to have little to nothing to do with the piece. Rakowski’s is one of the rare genial musical personalities (his hilarious riposte to all manner of compositional orthodoxies can be seen here) and this three-movement quartet is something of a devil-may-care romp whose first movement opens in a cloud of dust that gradually settles into a melodic line that drives through a jazzy stretch before a lyrical close. A slow, very self-consciously lyric and beautiful movement follows, in which Rakowski gives the piano a somewhat incongruous accompaniment entirely played directly on the piano’s strings.

“Pianists hate that,” Rakowski said, with a big smile, in his introduction  — for which reason, as Burleson told us later, BU sternly refused permission to use Tsai’s regular concert grand. Those party-poopers! The finale, which Rakowski described as a scherzo, sets up a toccata-like driving rhythm against which the violin descants with a slow-moving tune. The movement segues to a slower “trio”; then, just a few seconds after resuming the opening section, it all just stops. La commedia è finita. A charming, well-built piece in a loose-limbed way. The performance, conducted by Pittman, seemed perfectly together. Each player contributed passages of distinguished finesse and the ensemble seemed to be chugging contentedly. Even Burleson smiled.

The second half opened with a short three-movement work for flute (Ann Bobo) and clarinet (Kirkley), “Circling,” written in 2002 by David Froom. The composer, who also introduced his work, described his objective as taking these two instruments that are often called upon to blend sonorities, and play with the ways this can be made to happen or, as in the first movement, not happen. In the first movement, called “Tête-à-tête,” the main technique seems to have been to have the instruments sort of bark at each other in dissonant counterpoint rather than to explore those ranges of the instruments (e.g., the chalumeau register of the clarinet) that are least like each other. The second movement, “Pas de deux,” winds the two players’ lines tightly around one another in a kind of coital coil —mostly consonance here, so it must be love. The finale, “Duettino,” tries to create what the composer called a single mega-instrument, a “flutinet,” in which the instruments don’t play in unison but often complete each other’s thoughts and mostly keep within close range of one another. While impeccably constructed, this appeared the musically slightest of the four pieces on the program, but Bobo and Kirkley were solid in technique and closely synched in rhythm and phrasing.

About the title work on the program, Foss’s seminal 1960 song cycle, here sung by Jennifer Ashe, soprano, with Kirkley, Müller-Szeraws, Burleson and Jonatahan Hess, percussion, under Pittman’s direction, we have previously given some background <here>.  It struck us yet again about this piece that in setting his native German, Foss was more given to lyrical expression — even in the pattery recitations of the psychotic Kafka diary entry that constitutes the third song — than in the jagged dissociative music for the English texts from Auden and Housman. The final poem, from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, is Mahlerian in affect, obsessing as it must on the “Ewigkeit” ending, so much like Das Lied von der Erde.

As for the performances, Ashe has a lovely voice, whose wide range of tone as well as pitch packs quite a wallop, especially for one of her slight stature. She makes a specialty of modernist-and-later music, so does it as well as anyone, and brings great dramatic sensibility to her performances, but it must be said that the disjointed lines such as appear in the first two songs are not calculated to bring out the best in a singer’s voice; such are the trade-offs composers make. In the finale, we hung enraptured on every note. Her diction (our publisher would prefer us to say enunciation, but this is music, not declamation) was not, however, up to the same standard, in German or English. Pittman ran a tight ship with the instrumental ensemble, and was exhilaratingly effective with Hess in the clockwork passages of the Auden setting; the Nietzschian finale glowed in its static splendor, from all the performers.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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