It is a brave classical-music impresario who invites a rural New Hampshire audience to a program including a single string quartet preceded by a 25-minute lecture and followed by a 70-minute poetry reading. Yet the concept of tethering the poetry of T. S. Eliot to the music of L. v. Beethoven had enough box-office potential to elicit a feature article from The Boston Globe yesterday, as well as to fill the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield, NH, last night. Electric Earth’s artistic directors Jonathan Bagg and Laura Gilbert invited the Chiara String Quartet to perform Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130, as something of an aperitif to George D. Gopen’s dramatic reading of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
The evening began with Gopen’s 20-minute manifesto on the inevitability of his musical and poetic pairing. This ran counter to my belief as a presenter, that one should not justify or explain what one is about to present. The copious program notes should have sufficed. Yet one did take away a sense of how one might want to listen to this poetry recitation — as rhythm and music — letting the individual words take on meaning only through future readings. One also had one’s expectations primed to anticipate Eliot’s gleanings from the late Beethoven’s power and modernity.
By the time the Chiara String Quartet took to the stage I was expecting transcendental drama. But as a natural skeptic, I was also aware that the attractive auditorium, with a glass wall admitting a fine view of Crotched Mountain, was also an anechoic space. Aside from the glass wall and tile floor, every surface was covered in absorbent material. This was excellent for the amplified lecture by Gopen, but presaged a dry night for musicians.
Opus 130 opened with almost Haydnesque geniality. There was continuous vibrato and a gemütlich indulgence for slides. It seemed as if the Chiara intended to sneak up on the deepest moments in the piece in order to make the familiar Great Fuge, op. 133 — the work’s last movement — shocking and new. Indeed, the first three movements sang and danced with surprising lightness. The Cavatina fourth movement was presented in hushed tones, in order, I assumed, to set up a traversal of Beethoven’s penultimate string quartet opus as something of a life-enhancing summation.
Probably in large part because of the inadequacies of the venue, the performance of op. 133 sounded scrawny and undramatic, very unlike the excellent work I have heard from the Chiara in the past. There wasn’t enough power, the tuning wasn’t precise, and the ensemble wasn’t always very clean. Such inadequacies can sometimes be forgiven in an exciting performance, but this one had little compensating sense of drive or destination.
Coupling music with oration is hardly a novel construct. One can recall melodramas of Beethoven and Liszt, performances of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht preceded by the Richard Dehmel poem which inspired it, as well as such fine rarities as Brahms’s song cycle, Die schöne Magelone, op.33, which is best offered as a tapestry alternating songs with readings from the poet/dramatist Ludwig Tieck. I recently presented a very compelling performance by the Leipzig String Quartet that included staged enactments from “Adrian Leverkühn’s Testament” from Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus alternating with musical works such as the first movement from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, the Dankgesang movement of Beethoven’s op. 132, as well as movements by Cage, Webern, and Adorno. The memory of that performance raised my expectations for last night’s.
When I first read about the Gopen/Chiara collaboration of words and music, I expected that Beethoven would be interspersed with Eliot in some synergistic and inevitable sounding mix. When I later learned that the quartet and poetic readings would be separated by an intermission, I began to doubt whether either work would inform or add value to the other. The Chiara’s playing had not left me with any strong yearning for a poetry reading. Nor did the subsequent reading ameliorate my disappointment in the musical performance.
I leave the formal exegesis on Eliot’s poems and the appropriateness of pairing them with a particular Beethoven quartet to my esteemed and learned colleague, BMInt reviewer Cashman Kerr Prince. His essay in the form of a consideration of Gopen’s program notes appears here.
I am very happy to report that George D. Gopen, professor emeritus of the Practice of Rhetoric at Duke University, gave a very fine reading. His expressive vocabulary was large. His musically modulated voice covered a wide pitch range. His enunciation was quite clear with all the necessary glottal stops and other such rhetorical devices. The combination of his theatrical inflections and rhythmic sensitivity did give a fine sense of musical form and served to emphasize the larger themes of death and rebirth that recurred in a variety of iterations throughout the poems. Though Gopen had little opportunity to impersonate multiple characters as some do in such recitations, he did employ a distinct vocal styling for his characterization of the ghost in the second movement of the fourth poem.
Gopen has been reading and teaching these poems for a great many years. His dedication and immersion have allowed him get beyond a mere recitation, rising last night to a canonic dramatization that places him in the company of great actors such as Claude Rains.