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American Modernists: Kinetic and Unmannered


Gil Rose outside Peterborogh Town House (Michael J. Lutch photo)
Gil Rose outside Peterborough Town House (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Monadnock Music featured ballet and similar scores Saturday night as Gil Rose set a pungent table of 20th-century works from Barber to Perle. Rose’s well-known programming ability was on full display Saturday night in the Monadnock Music Festival with a concert in the Peterborough Town house featuring a chamber-orchestra-sized sub-group from his BMOP ensemble.

Neither of two modern dance scores composed for Martha Graham, by William Schuman and Samuel Barber, is heard often in its original form except when done as background for the ballets, and since Martha Graham’s death, her company rarely performs these pieces. In between these kinetic but dancerless scores came attractive compositions by George Perle and Charles Fussell.

Fussell introduced his November Leaves, a cycle of four orchestral songs for chamber orchestra and mezzo on poetry by Alfred Corn, explaining that this was an orchestral enlargement of a cycle of five composed originally for piano (Fussell felt that accompaniment to one song was so thoroughly pianistic that it defied transcription). The poetry deals mostly in autumnal images, suggesting the fall of the year as well as the last stages of life. The songs are not in any way depressing, however. Fussell responds to the English language effectively, with clear settings and expressive musical imagery.

The first poem, “November Leaves,” vividly describes the effect of winter’s arrival, the snow (“white-sale blankets”) falling on the surviving leaves. The second, “Vocations,” depicts the demise of a moth in vivid images of mortality. Both sustain soaring lyricism with musical gestures evoking loneliness. “Sapphics at a Trot,” is lighter in tone, since “trot” in the title and the first line, “Horses aren’t always averse to bridles,” suggest a rhythm related to the clip-clop of hooves. The poem speaks of poetic shape (the form of “sapphics”) and the effect of a musical setting of same with a light touch of wit captured in the score. The closer, “Shores,” returns explicitly to the mood of solitude. A watcher—the singer—quietly observes the sun’s return over a large body of water. Stanza refrains emphasize the loneliness of the one human presence.

Mezzo Jamie Korkos captured the varying moods effectively and with clear diction, only slightly undone by the resonance of the Peterborough Town House.

Rose’s unmannered conducting of the two dance scores kept the kinetic spirit moving whether it was in sustained contemplation or ferocious energy.

William Schuman’s Night Journey: Choreographic Poem for 15 Instruments is a concert adaptation of a ballet score in which Graham represented one of those tormented women from myth to whom she was often drawn in dance: Jocasta, coming to grips with the realization that she has slept with her son, who had previously murdered her husband, his father. Though it would be more colorful and perhaps more effective to hear the music as part of the dance program, Schuman alternates passages of quiet, sustained, intense music in which Jocasta is apparently contemplating her position with passages of violent intensity. Dark sounds from a fateful horn open the work; sustained woodwinds suddenly explode with forceful rhythms, spiked by a violent arpeggio in the piano. A somber march figure sets in, while by turns oboe and flute intone sustained phrases. Rose keeps the tension up, controlling the vivid opposition of wildly whirling circles of woodwind figures or dissonant rhythmic chords. Sections of poignant repose turn into driving figures. The close, unexpectedly calm, may reflect Jocasta’s decision to act, which leads her to considered calmness in the music, leaving the listener to intuit the coming violence.

Barber’s music for Graham’s dance about Medea was performed in its choreographic version as Serpent Heart, revised in 1947 as Cave of the Heart, but Barber always preferred simply to call it Medea. Her story has its own share of horrors. After she has fallen in love with Jason and helped him escape from Colchis with the Golden Fleece, she marries him, but he soon deserts her for another woman. Medea’s fury knows no bounds: she kills her husband, his lover, and her own children.

Barber later prepared a single-movement orchestral work out of this material, with the title Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Death, his preferred version for concert use. It is for full orchestra and roughly half the length of the ballet. The dance version, for chamber orchestra, is divided into a number of movements of varying character, and makes signal demands on the players, almost all of whom are soloists. At the same time, Barber’s score can perhaps be called sweeter, harmonically speaking, than Schuman’s. In the early part of the score, there are solo turns for Medea (nervous and twitchy), her rival, the Princess (lighter, with flirtatious interplay of flute, clarinet, and bassoon), and Jason (dotted rhythms, with a martial air). Romantic exchanges among the woodwinds evoke Jason together with the Princess.

A somber march in the piano accompanied by an expressive oboe solo (gorgeously played by Jennifer Slowik) marks the start of Medea’s meditation, which will turn murderous. A driving ostinato figure begin in the piano, with the other instruments offering commentary as Medea works herself up to the actual act of vengeance. The closing lamentation over the dead comes from sustained keening, especially of the wind instruments, over repeated high-pitched figures in the piano.

Both ballets called for dramatic and sustained playing for the horn, especially representing the arrogant, confident Jason with forceful in-your-face playing executed by the stalwart Neil Godwin.

As with the Schuman score, the explicit significance of the musical moods would be more precise in their reference if the choreography were present. Nonetheless, the inherent drama of Barber’s music prevailed.

I was particularly delighted to hear George Perle’s Serenade No. 3 for piano and chamber ensemble (1983) because Perle, among composers who write in a nontonal style, has a remarkable gift of clarity. Phrases are shaped in ways that are perceptible to the ear, and lines sing forth without the texture sounding muddy. Of course this is also a quality of the exemplary performance. The five movements of the Serenade are diverse in character. The most moving is the third, the centerpiece, an elegy composed in the memory of George Balanchine, whom Perle admired greatly. The remaining movements, two before and two after, offer various degrees of fast music, by turns jazzy, satirical, energetically driven, and witty. Perle’s control of harmonic rhythm makes him all but unique among composers using the 12-tone system in being able to write a real scherzo.

Donald Berman carried off the very tricky piano part brilliantly. He had learned it for this performance; afterward he remarked upon the pleasures the very challenging score held. Gil Rose’s conducting is clear and unfussy, pulling the busy elements together precisely, for all the rhythmic energy and complexity. The effect was to spread vital satisfaction to the modest-sized but enthusiastic audience.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.   

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  1. Hi Steve — Quick note: the Martha Graham Dance Company regularly performs “Night Journey” and “Cave of the Heart” with the scores commissioned respectively from William Schuman and Samuel Barber. In fact, both ballets – two of Graham’s greatest masterworks — will be performed at NY City Center in mid April ’16 as part of our 90th Anniversary season. I would have loved to hear this concert. Perhaps next season Monadnock will take on some of the other remarkable scores created for MG by Menotti, Hindemith, Chavez, or others. MG used only commissioned scores for four decades and worked with almost every major composer of her day.

    Comment by Janet Eilber — August 4, 2015 at 9:14 pm

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