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A Challenge Insurmountable? Pearlman’s Operoar


Boston Baroque inaugurated its New Directions chamber music series last night at Longy’s Pickman Concert Hall with the premiere of Martin Pearlman’s Finnegans Wake: An Operoar. The full house heard this 30-minute “work in progress” in an open workshop format, with the performance followed by discussion and a repeat. The evening was memorable; the music densely polyglot, as befits Joyce’s protean text.

Martin Pearlman took the stage with Adam Harvey, actor and reader, and seven musicians: Sarah Brady, flute and piccolo; William Kirkley, clarinet and bass clarinet; Robert Schulz, percussion; Donald Berman, piano; Danielle Maddon, violin; Sarah Darling, viola; and Anthony D’Amico, double bass. Each was called upon to excel, individually and collectively, in realizing Pearlman’s score; percussionist Schulz attracted the most attention from the audience for his manifest multi-tasking as he singly covered a range of instruments with great aplomb. All the performers worked together in a close and cogent coherence to give an impassioned and polished performance of Pearlman’s piece.

The music is both allusive and descriptive. Livia is heard as a sinuous theme on clarinet. Then there is musical figure painting: when Finnegan falls off a ladder, the timpanum falls in pitch. Irish tunes known to Joyce and alluded to in the text are cited: “Little Annie Rooney,” which becomes a leitmotif for Livia; “Miss Hooligan’s Christmas Cake,” reworked as a commentary on what I know as “funeral baked meats,” and also treats, present at Finnegan’s wake. The presence of Irish tunes is denser at the wake, more drunkenly slurred as well as more present. Elsewhere some Wagner, Beethoven’s Fidelio, even that infernal gallop we know as the can-can, make appearances (more or less obvious) in Pearlman’s work. Throughout, the music maintains a strong rhythmic presence, with forward momentum and moments of greater or lesser density or tension, as suits the text. At the same time, there are humorous moments: when Joyce quotes the chorus of frogs from Aristophanes’ play, rather than frogs ribbeting on “brek-ek-ek-ex co-ax, co-ax” we get a duck-like quack, or “qu-ax,” to entertain us.

Pearlman’s work sets the beginning of Joyce’s final novel. The music opens with a cymbal, quiet at first, then blossoming into an eerie premonition over four measures (if I counted them correctly), before growing into a dissonance held by several instruments — strings without vibrato; flute fluttering breathily. All before Harvey intones his opening, “riverrun.” With the addition of the text, the composition gains another dimension. The music is inventive, as befits a linguistic exercise in creating a hybrid language. At the same time, the music seeks to enhance, not supplant, the text; words take precedence here, most obviously at “Grace before glutton” (at a barren spot, musically) or the great announcement of “municipal sin business.”

Pearlman is not the first composer to espy Finnegans Wake with compositional eye . To the musical compositions previously mentioned in the BMInt interview [here], add Samuel Barber’s Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, op. 44. Although this composition does not set words, the title is drawn from the opening pages of Finnegans Wake. The words leapt out at me in this performance. Clearly Barber here takes inspiration from Joyce’s text, even if this composition did not influence Pearlman’s own. Joyce’s language is musical, and it incorporates music; what is a composer to do? The combination of spoken (albeit rhythmic) text and music poses problems of balance and focus, as came up during the post-intermission discussion. We search for coherence and meaning in the text, yet Joyce’s novel is a difficult work precisely because it impedes any simple assimilation or assumption, indeed ascription, of meaning. Pearlman’s marriage of words and music presents the added challenge of focusing our attention on one or the other element. When it was suggested that this work needed choreography or a black-and-white film running behind the musicians, Pearlman responded, not just rhetorically, by wondering aloud how many layers of meaning one work can bear. That is a question worthy of Joyce. The first performance had the added challenge of balance issues, so Adam Harvey was hard to hear; the second performance, at the end of the evening, rectified this technical issue, yet still remained the problem of trying to focus on music at the expense of text, or text at the expense of music. Both chafe at being background; neither deserves such a lowly fate. Indeed, the combination of music and text had already left me pondering whether Pearlman had broached a challenge insurmountable.

Such is the problem of inventing a new art, to borrow from another discussant. Pearlman set himself this task and we are the richer for his effort, even if it be a work in progress with kinks un-ironed.

I found myself approached at intermission by a member of Boston Baroque’s staff. I was searching for a water fountain, she a preview of this review. Then I declined engagement, decidedly; here, now, is an answer to your question.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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