Longy School of Music of Bard College kicked off Septemberfest, an annual two-week-long series of performances, last Friday evening with an eclectic mix of mostly 20th– and 21st-century music. The program was centered on a large number of short “portraits” composed by Virgil Thomson. Composer Scott Wheeler, in his aptly titled pre-concert talk, “The Discipline of Spontaneity: Musical Portraiture Before and After Virgil Thomson,” described Thomson’s portraiture process amid warm personal anecdotes. Wheeler, who also had two works featured on the program, was a close friend of Thomson. Thomson would compose a portrait of a subject (sometimes friends, sometimes strangers) within a period of hours, as they sat in silence (which he mandated). The subjects represented on the program ranged from personal acquaintances to well-known figures such as Pablo Picasso and Aaron Copland. The results are unadulterated specimens of the composer’s most primal creative impulses. Wheeler emphasized that Thomson’s portraits must ultimately stand on their own as pieces of music.
To my ear, the majority of the pieces failed to “stand on their own” and were only stimulating when coupled with the quirky stories of their respective subjects; each portrait was preceded by a reading from Anthony Tommasini’s book, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (1997), describing the subject. Readers were Ruth Blackburn, Anna Gabrieli, Julian Pellicano, and guest artists Lloyd Schwartz, Ann-Marie Soulliere, and Scott Wheeler.
A few of the portraits stood out, however, including the opening Fanfare (Robin Smith) and the concert’s closing Man of Iron (Willy Eisenhart), both brilliant expositions full of character, for brass quintet. The less convincing miniatures, such as Madame Bubost chez elle, were typically plagued by confusing stylistic references, jumping between late-Baroque tonal styles to music of the freely composed diatonic Neo-classical sort, to pseudo-Modernist music, all within the span of a minute. I’m not sure how such a portrait could capture the essence of any personality, unless perhaps they were confused about what century they lived in. I also found the various moments where Thomson opts for a more French style (i.e. Louis Lange, from Three French Boys, and Ann-Marie Soulliere), to be less than convincing.
At times, Thomson’s modest pianistic writing is quite successful. In a Bird Cage (Lise Deharme) was delightfully evocative, creating a bewitching and playful dialogue between cello and piano. Bugles and Birds (Pablo Picasso), employing bitonality and a style reminiscent of Ives, was wonderfully expressive. Mark Beard: Never Alone, was one of a few that rigidly maintained a diatonic composition for its near entirety and seemed to be void of any redeeming musical qualities. On the other hand, Persistently Partora: Aaron Copland employed the same tonal limitations but was among the strongest of the miniatures; perhaps Thomson felt a certain pressure to impress this subject more than some others.
Between the concert’s bookends of Virgil Thomson portraits were pieces of very different character. Scott Wheeler has composed some musical portraits of his own, largely as a response to Thomson’s approach. Pianist Wayman Chin, Dean of the Conservatory of Music at Longy, premiered Arietta, a portrait of soprano Nancy Armstrong (who was in the audience); and Naoko Sugiyama performed Birthday Card for Tony, based on Thomson’s own portrait of his biographer, Tommasini. Arietta was full of rich, harmonic color, and Chin interpreted the piece’s melodic lyricism with grace. The piece evokes a style Wheeler so eloquently uses in his art songs, which only seems appropriate, given the subject of this portrait, renowned for her interpretive singing of songs from Purcell through Gershwin. Birthday Card for Tony, by contrast, was rhythmic and angular, cleverly spinning musical themes around off-axis meters. Both pianists performed brilliantly.
David Mullikin’s The Emperor and the Nightingale was a narrated fable with a direct quality about it. The piece, as flutist Julie Scolnik announced, is intended for young audiences but would no doubt find a welcome reception by adults as well. The music was mostly simple but weaved nicely into Hans Christian Anderson’s story, narrated with panache by Karen Zorn, President of Longy School of Music of Bard College. Harpsichordist Avi Stein gave a splendid performance of some early examples of portraiture of Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745); his Suite in C Minor, transcribed from bass viol by his son, Jean-Baptiste, includes portraits of Rameau, Guignon, Sylva, and Jupiter. It was bright and magnificently virtuosic, and Stein navigated the piece’s flowing contrapuntal textures with maturity and musicality.
After these departures, the program returned to a final set of Virgil Thomson’s portraits, which, as previously stated, run the gamut of musical style, medium, and quality. Ultimately, these miniatures presented him as a rare composer who was able to tie the creative process itself to connecting directly with people, where so much of a typical composer’s work is done in solitude. It’s a heartening realization, then, that this very medium Thomson used to more intimately relate to others has become a vehicle in which audiences may now more intimately relate to him.
Longy’s Septemberfest continues with a program of Beethoven, the couples Clara and Robert Schumann and Gustav and Alma Mahler, on Wednesday, September 19th.