in: Reviews

February 10, 2014

Boston Music Viva Delights Young

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Every year, Boston Music Viva not only organizes a family concert but also commissions a new work for it, and aims to include young performers as well as target young audiences. Of the two pieces on Sunday’s program at the Tsai Center, the commissioned work, Gold’s Fool: A Tale of King Midas and the Golden Touch, by Kathryn Salfelder, featured the PALS Children’s Chorus. Pinocchio’s Adventures in Funland, by the well-known Boston-based composer Michael Gandolfi, began the program. While very different, both works delighted.

Gandolfi’s Pinocchio was engaging and exhilarating. The six-instrument ensemble created an astonishing panoply of scenes illustrated by sonorities. Key to the compelling story is the narrator, and Steve Aveson did the role so brilliantly that I wondered if narrator was really the right term. He dramatized all the roles such that it was really a theatrical performance, with the many characters brought to life, including the narrator! Aveson’s spoken part (the libretto is by Dana Bonstrom) was at times independent from the music but at other times had to be skillfully coordinated with it, so he too was an integral part of the ensemble. The music vividly portrayed all of these characters, and a lot of the action. The Blue Fairy had floating ethereal music, tinged with a triangle. The rowdy Candleflame had a bouncy rhythm with shakers and melodic exchanges between violin and clarinet. Percussionist Robert Schultz pulled a huge range of sounds from his panoply of instruments. All the excellent musicians of BMV deserve fervent praise: Gabriela Diaz, violin; Ann Bobo, flute; William Kirkley, clarinet; Geoffrey Burleson, piano; and Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello.

I attended the concert with a music-loving eight-year-old, and Dasha and I were both on the edge of our seats with excitement. The musical moods were full of variety. A central scene is on the coach to Funland, once Pinocchio has overcome his qualms about going there. This gradually built in motoric energy, a long crescendo, full of pulsing, driving rhythms. Then the arrival at Funland was frenetic and cacophonous, with barkers’ calls, snippets of nursery rhymes and children’s songs bantered among instruments and narrator. Later Dasha and I wondered that there were only six instrumentalists, so often did they create the sense of a teeming crowd.

Gandolfi’s Pinocchio has received many performances and, arranged for orchestra, will be performed in March by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Although less action-packed than Gandolfi’s work, Kathryn Salfelder’s King Midas was an exciting and moving success. Her music was more reflective and poignant, illustrating a story that is philosophical and thoughtful. I was very impressed by the PALS Children’s Chorus, which tackled a score that struck me as being difficult for children to sing—not offering memorable tunes, but rich with expansive sonorities and involved rhythmic patterns, with the result an effective, emotional telling of the tale.

In a setting with instrumental ensemble, children’s chorus, and narrator, what role should the chorus serve? The children of course have a role, not only in the unfolding of the story but also in taking it in: they are part audience, part narrator, part of the musical fabric. To have a children’s chorus perform in a piece for children seems both reflective and intuitive, and here complements the way that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s telling of the ancient Midas myth (in his 1851 A Wonder Book for Girls & Boys) was framed in a storytelling event. Librettist Charles Peltz has pared Hawthorne’s story, but has done so with great care, and the resulting work resonates on many levels, textually and musically.

It begins with the chorus in a serious tone, somberly repeating “Glitter,” portending that gold’s shallow beauty will lead Midas to tragedy. Throughout, the PALS chorus brought focused intensity to their singing. Frequently the chorus part served to set the mood, expanding on and reacting to details given by the narrator. That was fine. But when the chorus actually moved the story forward, we had the problem of not being able to catch all the words. This is unavoidable when words are sung; it was not the fault of the chorus, whose diction was as expert as their navigation of the often polyphonic textures and complicated rhythms. Because sung words are inevitably difficult to understand, we usually find that choruses, and also solo singers, include printed texts in a program, even when they’re in English. Not the case here, unfortunately, and I also enjoy being able later to ponder the poetic quality of the sung words (I’m a program hoarder). We now expect opera to be performed with titles (sub-, super-, side) and I’ve started to wonder if projected text could accompany other vocal performances.

Salfelder’s score compellingly employs elements of the combined ensembles for moods and sonorities. Midas’s excitement, when he is promised the golden touch by the mysterious stranger, is conveyed through wildly capering lines exchanged between flute and clarinet. Later, the King’s sorrow was palpable as he realizes that his wish for gold is destroying what he values most. We experience this through the chorus, their clear pure tones a texture of overlapping lines, with the strings outlining the melodic contours and the vibraphone heightening emotional points.

This was a more complicated ensemble for Pittman to navigate, given the role of the chorus as well as the narrator, all accompanied. But everything flowed with energy and precision. And the story ends happily, as the mysterious stranger is able to restore the damage that Midas’s wish has brought him. And we hope the part of happy ending is that the young listeners on Sunday will be just the first of many to get to hear this captivating work. In what (judging from her website) seems to be a first composition for voices, Salfelder has struck gold, and young audiences will be the richer for it.

Just a few other points:

The special program for children is a great idea. Dasha dove into its puzzles with vigor.

While I bet a lot of these kids have had the instruments of the orchestra introduced to them, it might be nice to offer a chance for Q&A after the performance, at least with the percussion! I wanted to ask, if you use a bow on a vibraphone, is it still a percussion instrument? And do you have to study with a string player to learn to do that?

There was a very good crowd, but it was such a fun and worthwhile afternoon that I’d love for more children to get to see it. Is there a way to partner with youth organizations to get every full seat full?

Finally, when you say there’s a reception with brownies, you really need to have a lot of brownies!

Gandolfi’s Pinocchio has been commercially recorded and may be heard on his website.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc..

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