As high concepts go for concerts, this was not a bad one. In honor of the reopening of the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester after extensive renovations, Rockport Music’s Artistic Director thought to have a program with a maritime theme in which images from the CAM’s extensive collection of seascapes by Fitz Henry Lane could be displayed on the Shalin Liu Center’s excellent video system. The only problem was finding the right music for it. Debussy’s La Mer would be ideal, but that’s an orchestral work requiring too many bodies for the Shalin Liu stage. Or is it?
It turns out that in 2012 a somewhat similar thought had occurred to the British piano trio Les Apaches, who had performed a 2000 work by British composer Sally Beamish setting (for narrator and trio) the 10th-century anonymous poem “The Seafarer,” from the Exeter Codex (so called because this collection of medieval literature was given to, and is still housed at, Exeter Cathedral), in a modern English translation by Charles Harrison Wallace from 1999. As a companion piece the trio asked Beamish to make an arrangement for them of La Mer; after balking at the unnerving complexity of such a radical reduction, she complied.
And so it was that the Boston Trio (Irina Muresanu, violin; Astrid Schween, cello; and Heng-Jin Park, piano), abetted by William Hausman to narrate The Seafarer, solved Deveau’s problem by giving the US premieres of both the Beamish trio and her Debussy arrangement on Saturday evening. To round out the program they also performed the Fauré trio, a favorite from BT’s repertoire.
We had not previously heard any of Beamish’s music. She is a close contemporary of Judith Weir and, in some respects, they have had mirror-image lives: Weir, who identifies as Scottish, lives in England, while Beamish, who is English, has long lived in Scotland. Their musical idioms, too, are quite comparable. What a German writer said of Weir’s music is essentially true of Beamish: “neither avant-garde nor experimental but [it] has a highly distilled folkloric style with cantabile voices similar to that of Britten without becoming retrospective. Tonality and atonality are not applied in a strictly antithetical manner…” The reference to Britten is especially telling, particularly, in The Seafarer, to the late, chromatically inflected music.
As a lagniappe to the musical attractions of The Seafarer, it comes with its own video accoutrement, devised by the composer with artist Jila Peacock, a series of elegant, elaborate (and, as Deveau pointedly observed in a conversation, very expensive) semi-animated images that meshed perfectly with the music. That music began with a long, wailing, keening, rising pang of loneliness in the violin, forcefully rendered by Muresanu, then picked up by Schween with heaving swells that also colored Park’s entrance. Hausman’s reading of the poem, both accompanied and carefully offset against purely instrumental passages, was sturdy, dramatic without being overwrought, and pellucidly enunciated, but perhaps a bit too rhotic for the North Shore: the poet’s laments about the hardships of sea, observations of the weather, birds and sea life, mockery of the comfort of landlubbers, and fear of oncoming age, frailty and death, might have resonated better in the accents of a Gloucester fisherman with the Andrea Gail still in memory than those of a news announcer.
There are tone-paintings that Beamish found impossible to resist, such as gulls’ cries, and crashing waves in the lower registers of the piano. The work is not apparently divided into movements, but there were two large breaks, and in the second section the narration moved from normal speech to a rhythmically precise expression just short of Sprechstimme, against angry pizzicato in the violin and eerie wailing in the cello. While the music is not shoehorned into a fixed form, the violin passage that opened the work returns in several guises, including an inversion in the cello at the beginning of the third section, which introduces the poet’s larger meditations on the unwinding of life (with a smile-inducing lament that things aren’t as good now—this was the year 975!—as they used to be). The music grows weary and heavy, until the poet rises in praise of the God who, the poet is sure, knows what it’s all about much better than we lowly flotsam of earth. The writing is colorful and effective, and exploits various forms of attack and bowing without breaching decorum. An impressive work, impressively performed.
The first half of the concert closed with Fauré’s Trio in D Minor, Op. 120, the composer’s penultimate work, completed in 1923 at age 78. As noted, it has no reference to the sea, yet its crepuscular harmonies were a perfect match for the twilight on Rockport Harbor revealed through the window behind the stage (this was the only piece on the program that permitted the shutters to be open). It’s a work that Boston Trio has made a staple (though we’re not sure if they’ve done it since Schween ((soon to joint the Juilliard Quartet)) became its cellist in 2014). At any rate, she opened it with a lush, round sonority, and the trio took it from there with a grand sweep, while not neglecting the delicate lulls. The slow movement was melancholy and serene, the harmonies dissolving into one another and the counterpoint never going where it’s “supposed” to. The finale, with its enigmatic basis in Leoncavallo’s “Ridi pagliaccio” from I Pagliacci, was forceful and brittly hard-edged—is it angry, mocking, self-deprecatory? A very fine and stirring conclusion to an ineffably complex yet compact masterpiece.
That left only the Debussy to be accounted for, and Beamish’s arrangement certainly gives food for thought. Orchestrations (e.g. Ravel’s of Pictures at an Exhibition) are easier to bring off than reductions (Beethoven’s trio version of his septet is kind of meh, as is Webern’s trio version of Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony, though Stravinsky did get it mostly right with L’histoire du soldat). Beamish’s best thought about it was to forget entirely about Debussy’s orchestration and re-imagine the work from the ground up for the piano trio itself. Therefore, the strings were often as not playing wind lines, and the piano taking string parts, and so forth. The great thing about reductions is that voicings and details that get overlooked in the wash of orchestral sound (especially in Debussy) can be highlighted, as they were here. On the other hand, big things that the orchestra belts out can be obscured in the lighter textures of the chamber ensemble, for example the adumbration in the first movement of the big descending motif that powers the third. We found the performance, always at peak energy and the players at the top of their game, in highest gear in the finale, as one might expect, but with an enormous sense of power (as an aside, we should note that Muresanu, having played this room numerous times, was at no loss of volume and penetration in comparison to the others).
As to the visuals, well, it was a nice idea. The CAM has the world’s largest collection of Lanes, but there are only about 40 paintings, so they had to be recycled through the performance, and while an attempt was plainly made to synchronize the images to the music as best one could (to best effect in the early part of the finale), not all of them really “went” with what was being heard, and the Ken-Burns-like scan, pan, and zoom effects were overdone to the point where we just stopped looking for considerable stretches. That’s not to say that experiments like this shouldn’t happen; practice makes perfect.