IN: Reviews

Mrs. Gardner as Aphrodite and Athena


I was completely unfamiliar with The Mirror Visions Ensemble, but the fascinating program offered at the Longy School’s Pickman Hall on October 21 has definitely put them on my radar. The ensemble, under artistic director Tobé Malawista, consists of three singers (Vira Slywotzky, soprano; Scott Murphree, tenor; and Jesse Blumberg, baritone) and pianist Alan Darling. As a chamber ensemble dominated by voices, it assembles programs that emphasize the interaction of words and music, including pieces from many periods (covering the 17th to the 21st centuries on Friday), many musical styles, and new pieces especially commissioned, three of which were performed in this program. The singers all stayed on stage throughout the program, allowing them to move swiftly between songs and groups. All three have attractive voices and expressive stage presence, whether singing alone or in well-matched ensemble.

Malawista planned the program around a noted Bostonian figure, Isabella Stewart Gardner, creator of the wondrous museum on the Fenway and one of the most colorful figures in the social and artistic life of Boston around the turn of the last century. A great deal of research went into the planning, first choosing music in categories that celebrated Mrs. Gardner’s passions and interests, and then in choosing three wonderful letters to her to be set to music by Scott Wheeler.

The name of the program, “Aphrodite & Athena,” seemed rather grandiose until it was revealed that the phrase had been applied to Mrs. Gardner herself by a cousin in a letter to this energetic woman who seemed to be everywhere: “You must have a double, one devoted to society, music, admiration, and pearls, and the other sterner sister given to labor and duty; a kind of Aphrodite with a lining of Athene.” To that end, the program was shaped with groups of songs (variously for one, two, or three voices) representing the “Athena” side of her, especially in Incominciam!, an extended new setting by Christopher Berg of a passage from Dante; then the first of two “Venetian Sojourns” celebrating her favorite city; a group of diverse songs involving love and therefore obviously suggesting Aphrodite; Scott Wheeler’s Letters to Isabella, a group suggesting her love for solitude (a very different person than the one normally presented in the society columns of her day); a second “Venetian Sojourn”; and a group entitled “The Crown of Life,” reflecting her sense of fulfillment in a life lived as she chose to live it.

Within these groups, the songs ranged from the familiar and much-loved (Monteverdi’s “Zefiro torna,” Brahms’s “Die Mainacht,” and Schubert’s “Im Abendrot”) with slightly less familiar songs, including some in languages infrequently encountered in American vocal recitals (Rangström’s “Pan,” Sibelius’s “Norden”) and marvelous infrequently heard songs by Joaquin Nin, Jules Massenet, and Reynaldo Hahn. And on top of this, the new pieces by Berg and Wheeler.

Christopher Berg is a very busy composer of songs, I learned, though I have not had the occasion to hear his work before. The program opened with his setting of a passage from Book II of Dante’s Inferno, which he slightly rearranged in order and divided up between the singers, who were identified as Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice. This is a bit of poetic license, since Beatrice does not appear until the Paradiso (though she is often referenced earlier). I confess I did not get into this piece, though another hearing might well open up Berg’s connection to Dante’s lines. On the other hand, I found Berg’s En Paz, a setting of Amado Nervo’s “Paz” (“Peace”) in a kind of madrigal style for the three voices with piano, to be a lovely and touching close.

Personal letters between people who know one another well often tell us something about both the sender and the recipient. Scott Wheeler’s Letters to Isabella sets texts of great charm by three very good friends of Mrs. Gardner, writers who are also real writers. He was originally presented with a selection of three possibilities but decided that he wanted to read the letters himself to see if there were anything that struck him as better possibilities — and he ended up choosing the three that he had first been shown. Henry James is represented by an utterly characteristic Jamesian missive in which he arranges to meet her at her arrival in England. In essence the message is, “I’ll meet the 2:30 boat from Calais at Dover,” but he turned it into a lengthy and lightly flirtatious paragraph of balanced phrases and complex clauses. The second letter is in French, from the poet and novelist Paul Bourget (whose poem Musique is sung elsewhere in the program in Debussy’s setting). Bourget wishes her a farewell (in a macaronic epistle) if he is unable to see her in this land “des elevators, des fast trains, des hands up, des smash up, des pet alligators”! The final letter is from her closest friend in Japan, Kakuzo Okakura, who actually wrote his letter, charmingly, to her cat.

The songs are set for tenor, soprano, and baritone respectively. There is a special art of setting prose texts in a song. The composer rarely writes tunes that are meant to be memorable and self-sufficient in themselves, because the form of the text rarely allows for a shaping of balanced phrases. Instead, the natural rhythm of the language as spoken tends to suggest the nature of the vocal line—almost always syllabic and very flexible, though occasionally stretched out or heightened for some kind of emphasis. Scott Wheeler is very much at home in this kind of writing; the songs have a natural flow as if James or Bourget or Okakura might be thinking of musical phrases themselves. And I have little doubt that a second and third hearing would bring out the inherent melody that is tricky to grasp in a first encounter, precisely because it is novel and because the listener is also caught up with the surprise of the words. Following the three “letter” songs, the ensemble performed Wheeler’s setting of a poem by Okakura, The Stairway of Jade, inspired by a staircase at Fenway Court. This is more traditionally “songlike,” with short poetic lines of just two or three beats per line. The composer noted that “it is a hymn to nature, to architecture, and to Mrs. Gardner herself.” The intertwining voices provide a lovely, gently romantic close to the cycle of letters that preceded them.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.


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  1. I’m sorry that I missed this concert. It must have been very interesting.
    Certainly Isabella Stewart Gardner was one of the most fascinating and complex people.

    Comment by Ed Burke — October 27, 2011 at 11:09 pm

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