IN: Reviews

Callithumpians Voice Algae and Get Lost


Chaya Czernowin (file photo)
Chaya Czernowin (file photo)

Much music has been composed about lakes and plants, but Chaya’s Algae would have to be the first audible algoid. The Callithumpian Consort continued its “Voices” encounter with Helmut Lachenmann’s Got Lost, which found the few yet ardent attendees in Calderwood Hall loving it. A favorite of Stephen Drury’s, Charles Ives’s General William Booth Enters Into Heaven was an up-and-down closer.

Still being tested, the fairly new Calderwood Hall at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum appeared to “work” but not always. Introducing her piece, Harvard University composer Chaya Czernowin urged us few Callithumpian courageous to sit on two adjacent sides of the room facing the singer.

However, with the listeners facing mostly one side of the cube, the vocal acts of baritone Brian Church, while crystal clear some of the time, were not at other times; this, though, was partly due to the piano writing of Czernowin and to the playing of Drury. As to the sonic simulacra of soprano Elizabeth Keusch in the Lachenmann, who faced the corner where the two sides of the seated audience met, transmitted every bit of tone and timbre. So, too, did Drury.

Speaking about her composition for voice and piano, Czernowin wanted us to know beforehand that the text was in two languages, English and German. And for her, Wieland Hoban’s text would become “an intense inner conversation or conflict within a single person.” A man leaves his family, goes into the woods, sees a lake and walks into it.

Textures and techniques assumed conscious roles in “Algae.” Low-range blocks ferociously hammered on the lid-less Steinway would convert to a single key repeatedly depressed mildly mid-range. There was sureness in every spell-shift Drury was asked to take on. Also precisely cast for her twenty-four minute “neo-expressionist” (to quote the composer) “song” (my word) was Brian Church. Suddenly jumping from a buzzing bass to his ear-popping falsetto way up in soprano range, now bending this note, now sliding that, speed-speaking, tongue-fluttering, and more, Church also demonstrated a complete sense of confidence.

As mentioned, the piano, often dominating, diminished the experience. More so, despite some cerebral moments, these audibled pathologies exceeding borderlines, finally, in the end succumbed to a spectacle of histrionics.

Abstractionism, deconstructionism, serialism, call it what you like, but put Elizabeth Keusch and Stephen Drury together with Helmut Lachenmann’s “Got Lost,” and you get it…“music reflects upon itself with ‘expression’” (the composer’s words). If readers don’t get what these words mean, they can find out by viewing a performance on YouTube by these two same super-artists [here].  

For nearly a half hour, there are objects everywhere flirting with what we know as music, but almost all the while, it’s hard to put a finger on what is happening. These objects–hisses, cheek slaps, tongue clicks, shrieks reverberating in the piano, major chords, bleeps and bloops, tone sweeps, zapping the keyboard, caressing the strings–catch a hold and won’t let you go. Lachenmann’s Pollack-like canvas is uncanny as it is powerful stuff. Keusch and Drury communicated “Got Lost” in array of color, dazzling intimacy, and amazing synchronization. As with others, I loved this emotional gravitas without that tonal gravity. Calderwood never sounded so good!

Helmut Lachenmann (file photo)
Helmut Lachenmann (file photo)

With “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” came a sense of reality, of finding oneself back in Calderwood Hall listening to music the way we used to know it—and this was Ives! In a version that included both singers, Church took to artistry and distancing, Keusch went to the soul, and Drury overpowered. Her delivery of the closing line, “Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?” would have you longing to be. With Drury’s marching drum trailing off, both he and Keusch and plumbed Ives in the way Boatwright and Kirkpatrick have.  

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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