in: Reviews

April 15, 2014

Orphic Shakespeare at Jordan Hall

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Every year the Foundation for Modern Opera presents at Jordan Hall something called The Shakespeare Concerts, appearing to have two goals: the presentation of music based on the works of Shakespeare, and the promotion of music by Joseph Summer, an independent composer based in Worcester who at one time was the Executive Director of that city’s Commonwealth Opera Company. The two goals frequently overlap, as Summer is particularly attracted to the Bard—though from his program notes for this concert on April 12th, and for all we know from all prior ones, he has revealed himself as an acolyte of the Rosicrucianesque mythology of the “Oxfordians,” the folks who, incredulous that a country bumpkin from Stratford could have produced the greatest literature in English, have focused on that Elizabethan man about town Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the ghost-writer of all things Shakespearean. Be that as it may, this literary theology does not seem to have directed much, if any, of the works, including Summer’s own, that TSC presents.

The April 12th program was, however, a bit of an outlier in terms of the goals of TSC. The overall title for the program, as well as that of one and a third of the works on it, was “Orpheus with his Lute,” which, while the beginning of a famous song within the play Henry VIII, was an inflection point by which the concert could point both at Shakespeare and at other musical invocations of Classical mythology.

The program opened with what was arguably its best work, the Mythes (Mity in Polish) by Karol Szymanowski for violin and piano, his op. 30 dating from 1915. This suite has three movements, based on three tales of pursuit from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa; Narcissus’s pursuit of himself, to Echo’s consternation; and Pan’s pursuit of Syrinx, with the Dryads running interference. Szymanowski was “positively glutinous with self-approbation” (hat tip to Nicholas Meyer for that phrase) for this piece, and it is certainly both daring and beautiful, full of tricks of execution for the violin (chiefly harmonics, double-stop glissandi and portamenti—sometimes in harmonics—lush post-Romantic harmony that, with all its complexity, sometimes loses a clear sense of tonality, without being actually atonal. The executants for this work were a remarkable pair of Czech performers, violinist Josef Špaček and pianist Miroslav Sekera (the latter of whom lives in the US and is a regular on these concerts). Špaček, who is concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic and a global solo concertizer, has a formidable technique, a big and impeccable tone, and a passionate, communicative delivery. His performance of the Szymanowski, as with everything else he did Saturday night, demonstrated thoughtful musicianship of the highest order; we especially liked his dynamic control and well-considered phrasing. Sekera was likewise a commanding presence, bristling with chops, though not as subtle in dynamics and phrasing.

The Szymanowski was followed by a set of three songs, interrupted by the changing of pianists from piece to piece (a bizarre bit of programming and staging, that). All were sung by soprano Kathryn Guthrie, with John McGinn at the piano for Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Orpheus with his Lute and William Walton’s Daphne, with Sekera in between for Summer’s Leda and the Swan. The Vaughan Williams is an earlyish work (1904), and came out the same year as the first seven numbers of the magnificent Songs of Travel, yet it lacks what one thinks of as the “Vaughan Williams sound.” It plies a mock-Baroque setting and a pretty straightforward vocal line, and is altogether inferior to the Stevenson cycle. Summer’s work, setting a poem by Yeats, begins with a long, gentle introduction shattered by a forceful vocal entry on the words “a sudden blow”; the vocal line rises to operatic heights as the rape is enacted in the text. Summer is a modern retro-tonalist, whose occasional chromatic inflections add some flesh to a firmly 19th century diatonic frame; for us, it conjured comparisons to Stanford. The Walton, setting a poem by his early–days muse Edith Sitwell, was far from the brashness of Façade and was more premonitory of the decorous establishment figure Walton was to become. Guthrie has a lovely vocal tone and perfectly centered intonation, as well as good dramatic sense and a wonderful way with shaping lines. Her vibrato, though reasonably narrow, was excessive, and therefore her diction impossible in these pieces; one had to rely on the printed texts, which we, encumbered by note-taking apparatus, couldn’t. McGinn was a model of deference, who was there when and as needed; Sekera was more the equal collaborator to the singer, though this may have been more a function of Summer’s fairly thick piano textures.

The second half began with Summer’s The Dumb Show, a 2004 piano solo based on the dumb show episode in Hamlet, and which Summer described as a piano sonata in three linked movements. We were not, on first hearing, able to sort out the transitions between movements, owing to no great changes of tempo, meter, or texture between them, so our reaction was more like that to a tone poem than a proper sonata. Again, the textures were dense, the incidents, which we presume followed from the text (we don’t, alas, remember it verbatim), appeared to follow dramatic rather than abstract musical logic. Sekera played with characteristic skill and dynamism.

There followed the premiere of Summer’s Sonata for Violin and Voice. That what it says, and that’s what Summer says he meant, a sonata for violin with voice accompaniment. The concept of such a sonata reminded us of the joke that a brain transplant is an impossibility: what it really is, from the patient’s perspective, is a body transplant. For, of course, as soon as a voice begins to sing, especially when words are attached, it is the lead and never the accompaniment. In this case, the texts were Shakespearean, which doubles down on the impossibility of relegating them to the background. So, perhaps a bit of a joke, that title, but never mind. As a set of three songs it worked just fine (far and away the best Summer music on the program, there being no Barber to compete with). The three texts were the Orpheus number, Sonnet 103 (“Alack! What poverty my muse brings forth”) and Sonnet 128 (“How oft when thou my music, music play’st”). As you can see, this is self-referential stuff, and Summer acknowledged that his goal was to focus on performance as such and composition as such. The first movement features a nice 5/4 riff in harmonics as a refrain; Guthrie enters after a page of violin solo and the song cycle has begun. The second movement features a charming violin accompaniment in Kreislerian cross-string arpeggios and similar figuration, wherein Špaček demonstrates again his awesome chops. The finale features an extremely playful bit between the performers in which Guthrie acts as a third hand to pluck the strings at the fingerboard while Špaček bows complicated double stops. Summer’s text setting was apt and the vocal line lithe, and this time Guthrie could be clearly heard.

The program wrapped with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s arrangement for violin and piano of four movements from his incidental music to Much Ado About Nothing, dating from 1918-19 and arranged in 1920. The first, “Maiden in the Bridal Chamber,” is a brief, sweet, very Viennese confection; the second, “Dogberry and Verges, March of the Watch,” adds chromatic flourishes to a straightforward march tune. Špaček and Sekera put a good spin on and provide oafish personality to it. “Garden Scene” is a piece of lyric salon music; it would make a charming encore number. “Masquerade,” finally, had some meat on its bones, with a rousing, Falstaffian English sound that the performers expounded with gusto.

There were two encores, one for Guthrie and McGinn, whose name we didn’t catch because it wasn’t thrown, and the other a goofy chestnut (everyone knows it but the name escapes us) played by Sekera on violin and Špaček on piano. The negligible crowd put out as much noise in approval as it could.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

1 Comment

  1. Really? Whatever.

    Comment by Philip Johnson — April 19, 2014 at 9:52 pm

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