IN: Reviews

Musical Responses to Tragedy


With what Artistic Director Deborah Boldin titled “called back,” Chameleon Arts Ensemble continued its fine tradition of adventurous programming on Saturday at First Church in Boston. The title cites the only words of Emily Dickinson’s last known letter, written shortly before her death in 1886. As Boldin wrote, they “perfectly captured the fleeting and cyclical nature of life and music.” The five included works arose from loss and death, including casualties from World War I, the centenary of which continues to be commemorated.

From the six movements of Maurice Ravel’s piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin (Memorial to Couperin), Mason Jones arranged four for chamber wind ensemble. The composer intended the movements not only as an homage to Francois Couperin and his fellow early-18th-century French harpsichord composers but also as memorials to six of Ravel’s friends killed in the Great War. The performers were flutist Deborah Boldin, oboist Nancy Dimock, bassoonist Margaret Phillips, clarinetist Kelli O’Connor, and French hornist Whitacre Hill. Prelude’s fluid triplets had a childlike insouciance and refreshing piquant timbre. Regrettably, there was also the occasional balance problem when the horn in its high register covered the other instruments. In performances of the complete suite, Fugue is occasionally the “problem child”; the “misplaced” accents of its subject keep the listener—and sometimes the pianist—off-balance and initially guessing at the meter. On this occasion, though, one could savor the players’ clear texture (the subject always clear, even in inversion and stretto), unanimity of purpose, subtle dynamic nuances, and wistful mood, particularly the ending—on a poignant bare fifth. Minuet was the graceful dance beloved of the French clavecinistes but including a powerful crescendo to the climax and true intonation amidst complex harmonies. The outer sections of Rigaudon were vigorous in rhythm and ebullient in mood. The slower central section, however, was a bit too staccato for my taste: it felt flippant rather than bittersweet. (While Ravel’s piano score does specify staccato, it is mitigated by the indicated use of the damper pedal.)

Walt Whitman, deeply shocked by the killing of President Lincoln, poured out his grief in his poetry, notably When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. George Crumb (b. 1929) set excerpts from it for soprano and piano, using the “extended techniques” for which he is renowned. Apparition: Elegiac Songs and Vocalises alternates text-setting (six excerpts) with wordless vocalises with the collaborating pianist using the instrument in both traditional and non-traditional ways: strumming and plucking its strings, knocking on various parts of its interior, enhancing both musicians’ resonance with the damper pedal. Soprano Mary Mackenzie and pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit were the intrepid performers—Mackenzie’s huge score required two music stands—in music that evoked, among other things, the sounds of nocturnal creatures, sitar music, a gentle harp, and the ecstatic melismas of Olivier Messiaen. Although the text briefly alludes to regeneration (“I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”), the central idea is that Death is a tenderly maternal figure (“. . . when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead, lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee, laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.”) The musicians ranged brilliantly over a huge spectrum, from intense emotional outcry in the second vocalise (reminiscent of the second of Ravel’s Chansons madécasses) to literal whispers and sprechstimme, from percussive piano passagework to barely audible brushed harp effects (perhaps evoking the wings of the Angel of Death). I had only one small quibble: as the piece progressed, Mackenzie’s enunciation, exemplary at first, became more relaxed, requiring listeners to make more frequent consultations of the printed text; granted, Crumb’s extended techniques require great concentration, but the poetry must remain primary. As a whole, though, this memorable performance was evocative, cathartic, and simply ravishing; at the conclusion the spellbound audience hardly moved a muscle for nearly half a minute before applauding wholeheartedly.

Chang-Freiheit and Mackenzie returned with Hill to give us Franz Schubert’s “Auf dem Strom” (On the River), D. 943, Op. 119, the beautiful song with French horn obbligato written eight months before the composer’s death. The poem by Ludwig Rellstab describes the anguished thoughts of a man on a boat sailing down a river to the sea and watching his beloved on the shore as she disappears in the distance. It is a thinly veiled allegory for the man’s dying and being thus separated from his sweetheart. Hill and Chang-Freiheit nonetheless created a lovely scene in their flowing introduction, showing us the craft gliding through the gentle waves of the river. Mackenzie sang with beautiful tone, flawless intonation, and impeccable legato but seldom seemed to engage with the words. Moreover, consciously or not, she stayed above mezzo piano to be heard over the horn, though when the vocal line dipped below a certain point, the horn would cover it anyway. Since a lyric voice like Mackenzie’s (as opposed to a heroic one) is so right for this work, one can only surmise that the horns of Schubert’s day were less powerful than those of today. For whatever reason, this rendition beguiled the ear but lacked the intensity of communication that had made the Crumb so compelling.

Contra Mortem et Tempus (Against Death and Time) by George Rochberg (1918-2005) was given a committed performance by violinist Kristin Lee, pianist Vivian Choi, Deborah Boldin, and Kelli O’Connor. Written in direct response to the sudden death of Rochberg’s son Paul in 1964, it represented the composer’s final break with the serial method of composition of which he had been a leading exponent. He had come to feel that serialism “made it virtually impossible to express serenity, tranquility, grace, wit, energy” and had become “hollow. . . meaningless.” Such statements sound ironic since, to my ears, Rochberg’s new style of composition is no more humane than serialism, structured atonality merely giving way to free atonality, widely disjunct intervals in all instruments, crashing keyboard tone clusters, fragmented phrases, etc. One wants to sympathize with a parent who has undergone the terrible trauma of losing a child, but this music never consoles, it simply shares the psychic agony and anger of its creator. To my mind it is a red flag when a composer declares, “To describe the procedures I employed in composing this work, it is much too complex to describe in simple words [which] would shed little light, if any, on the musical results.” The purposefulness of the performers was always evident and their technical mastery impressive, but unfortunately, I could not warm to the piece. Yet its placement ahead of a radically different work inspired by the same type of tragedy proved instructive.

Louis Vierne
Louis Vierne

The Piano Quintet in C Minor, Op. 42, of Louis Vierne (1870-1937) similarly represents a composer’s response to the premature death of his son—in this case, 17-year-old Jacques Vierne, killed in World War I. Vivian Choi and Kristin Lee returned along with violinist Tessa Lark, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer for this closer. Though Louis Vierne in 1900 had won the most prominent organist position in the world, titulaire of Notre Dame de Paris, his life was filled with hardships and tragedies from its very start: he was born blind from cataracts. He was, of necessity, a man of uncommon resilience, but the loss of Jacques was a most terrible blow. “I am constructing. . . a Quintet of vast proportions, which will give full expression to my tenderness and the tragic destiny of my child. . . The wild and furious energy with which I am tackling this task matches the depth of my grief, and I will make something powerful, grandiose and strong. . . Perhaps one who has suffered every grief, every bitterness, every anguish, may be able to ease and console the sufferings of others—that is the role of the artist. . .” One can see crystallized in the last sentence how Vierne’s musical philosophy differs from Rochberg’s. The first movement, Poco lento-Moderato, seemed to present the struggle between brutality and humanity. The former was represented initially by the ominous foreboding of the introduction which later exploded into battle; the latter was heard in the beautiful and warm second theme. Both motifs kept reasserting themselves, each seemingly unwilling to yield to the other for long. The final quiet major chord came more from exhaustion than victory. The middle movement, Larghetto sostenuto, may well be Vierne’s threnody for his son, beginning with muted strings playing unstable harmonies as though groping for the tonic—finally provided by the delayed entry of the piano. Though the music did build to a fulminating climax, the most memorable feature for this listener was a recurring theme of musical arches over a long pedal point, almost unbearably moving in its quiet grief. After leaving us emotionally vulnerable at the Larghetto’s tragic final cadence, Vierne remorselessly plunges us into the horror of world war: the last movement, Maestoso-Allegro molto risoluto, is as graphic a musical depiction of warfare as I have ever encountered. It began with harshly dissonant piano chords and nervous string tremolos and proceeded into a savagely staccato military theme. Presently, the piano introduced a motif of rapid-fire repeated notes reminiscent of machine gun fire, soon picked up by the strings. The few moments of respite were brief and macabre in mood. As the violence seemed to peak, we were hurled into a stretto coda with great cascades of piano passagework up and down the length of the keyboard, punctuated by the strings’ hammered chords—an ending that knocked the wind out of us. I can only salute these artists who gave free rein to Vierne’s tenderness, fury, and grief while maintaining enough control (excellent unanimity of ensemble and intonation) to create “something powerful, grandiose and strong.”

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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