in: Reviews

January 29, 2014

Contemporary Ensemble Cheered by Compatriots

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As an installment in New England Conservatory’s “Truth to Power” series John Heiss, who has promoted new music at the New England Conservatory with expert technique and counsel for decades, brought his Contemporary Music Ensemble to Jordan Hall last night for an evening of excellent performances. As I have remarked before in these pages, it is heartening to see so many young people rally to new music with unflagging interest, skill, and sensitivity, and with a confidence that was repeatedly cheered by their fellow students in the audience.

I hadn’t heard a live performance of Schoenberg’s Phantasy for solo violin with piano accompaniment, op. 47, composed 1949, since 1969, when I heard it played by Rose Mary Harbison and Robert Levin. Last night’s performers, Robert Anemone accompanied by Katherine Balch, demonstrated complete command, beautiful sound, and firmness without anxiety. Those who know this music, gritty at one moment and warmly expressive the next, remember that Schoenberg composed the violin part all the way through before adding the piano part; yet it’s obvious that the composer planned the piano part by degrees as he went along, especially in the passages that form a well-delineated dialogue between the instruments. The violin style is different from the ferocious approach that Schoenberg showed in his Concerto; in the Phantasy there is relatively little of high-register melody, multiple stops, or instrumental Angst; sometimes there are disjointed bursts that remind one of Webern’s Opus 7 violin pieces, but more often there is a well-maintained continuity of the melodic line, supported by a well-spaced chordal layer in the piano, almost like an impressionist harmony. Yet the frequent changes of texture and mood in the short space of 9 minutes make this music very much akin to a late Baroque Sturm und Drang fantasia.

Luciano Berio’s O King is an unremarkable trifle as music, hardly representative of its composer’s best, but as a political statement arising out of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, it is a muted gesture of tribute from the community of musicians. Last night I heard it also in a politically ironic sense, as a tribute to Pete Seeger, who had died the day before, and I remembered how both men had been vilified by the FBI and HUAC and other federal investigative organs. John Heiss directed an ensemble of five players who carefully accentuated Jacquelyn Stucker’s beautifully intoned vocal syllables with scary sforzati.

Berio’s Opus Number Zoo was a different item entirely, a rhythmic barnyard fantasy in four movements for wind quintet (with flute doubling alto flute), and poems spoken by the players when they weren’t playing. The program gave its date as 1951, with a revision in 1970. The texts, by Rhoda Levine, had suggestions of Old MacDonald and Jollity Farm as well as Eliot’s Old Possum, with a somber note spoken by the Fawn musing on the pointlessness of human warfare.

John Heiss’s Wanderings, “Fantasy-Prelude on Bach’s O Lamm Gottes,” for oboe and string trio, was a four-minute chorale prelude chopped into segments, with one or two measures of the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion wandering in. The performance was relaxed and loving.

Two longer works formed the centerpieces of the program. In two Scenes and two Prayers John Harbison’s Abu Ghraib, composed in 2006 for cello and piano, was as frightening as its title implied. The emotional strain began in the opening bars, with a fortissimo octave D in the piano surmounted in the cello by a D-sharp, and echoed later on by melodic lines doubled two or even three octaves apart. Yet the solo cello, heard a few moments later, projected a rich melody that made a claim for calm contemplation, echoed by the piano that followed. After a pause, Scene II began with redoubled harshness, including open-string double-stops, high- and low-register extremes, and banging the keyboard lid; the composer mentioned the harmonically distorted versions of “Silent Night” and “Rock of Ages,” whose identical opening motives also reflect the Iraqi folksong woven into the beginning of the movement. The overall impression of this music was heartening, but even more disturbing, and the passion of the performance was obvious throughout. Harbison, who was present, was well acclaimed by performers and audience alike. (Parenthetical note: “Rock of Ages” has already been co-opted for the foreseeable future in the deeply moving final measures, also for cello, in Charles Ives’s Piano Trio. I remember my disgust, when this work was played at the American Musicological Society’s national meeting in 1974, when my colleagues laughed out loud at this point.)

A string orchestra of 23 players, borrowed from the NEC Philharmonia, was mobilized for the final work on the program, Britten’s well-known Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings, Op. 31, composed in 1943, that is, around the same time as Peter Grimes. Some of this work’s fame comes from its unusual use of out-of-tune natural overtones on the solo horn, elegantly demonstrated by Michael Alexander; but what assures the permanent place of the Serenade in the vocal repertory is its fine setting of English texts (Tennyson, Charles Cotton, Keats, Blake, Jonson, and anonymous), with a sensitivity to vocal writing not surpassed by any English composer since Purcell. Britten’s harmonic sense is original and inventive, yet more refined than in the already striking mature Sinfonia da Requiem which I discussed in these pages a few months ago. There are great moments in this music almost too numerous to count; I especially liked the Scotch-snap reverse-dotted gestures echoing Tennyson’s “dying, dying, dying” in “Nocturne,” and the gently rocking 12/8 meter in Blake’s “Elegy” (O Rose, thou art sick!), with thudding pizzicati in cellos and basses like distant storms or even landslides. David Charles Tay sang all six songs to perfection, and the strings, conducted by Earl Lee, supported him ably.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Mark,

    I’m a fan of your writing and appreciate your thorough & thoughtful reviews. A well-considered performance appraisal takes time, and it’s very obvious you devoted a lot here and elsewhere to getting it right. However, I disagree strongly with your characterization of Berio’s “O King” as an “unremarkable trifle as music.”

    Maybe it’s a bit inscrutable, certainly unorthodox, but nothing about the piece to me suggests it’s trifling. I’m wading into subjective territory here saying this, but the first time I heard the piece was a figurative gut-punch. I was floored by the sounds of violins way up in the stratosphere of the fingerboard, and by the chilling formation of MLK’s name by slow accretion by the vocalists.

    The entire “Sinfonia” to me is an important work. It’s not the one piece I’d point to if people were interested in hearing more by Berio, but it’s still landmark. Maybe we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Regardless, keep up the good work, and the excellent writing.

    Comment by Will Roseliep — January 30, 2014 at 12:56 pm

  2. Dear Will,

    Thanks for your warm words, and I appreciate and respect your defense of “O King.” I ought to hear the piece in the later context as it appears in Sinfonia. If I find the piece relatively unremarkable as music, purely on its own terms, that would be because I have heard so much similar music that preceded it historically, especially in its apparent attempt to have instruments (and voice) imitate electronic sounds. I remember hearing a live performance of Milton Babbitt’s Composition for tenor and six instruments (1960) in which vowel sounds are projected in much the same way as in “O King”, without a specifically verbal context.

    As it happens, two days ago at Tufts University we heard an absorbing colloquium about “O King” by Katherine Bergeron, president of Connecticut College, and a recording of the premiere performance, from 4 May 1968 at Bowdoin College, by the Aeolian Chamber Players with Joy Blackett, mezzo-soprano. I certainly learned more about “O King” from this illuminating discussion. And I certainly acknowledge how it has become historically important.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — February 5, 2014 at 10:05 am

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