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Shrieks Serenade Slim Showing


It has happened to everyone at some time or another. An event comes along that piques curiosity and raises the question: What am I missing? That was the case with Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Sunday Concert Series that featured mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen, pianist Richard Masters, and a work by American composer Kenneth Frazelle.

Name recognition could very well have been the real reason for the slimmest showing that I have ever witnessed in Calderwood Hall. Findlen was schooled in North Carolina and Texas, where she makes her home. Masters is based in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he is an Assistant Professor in the School of Performing Arts at Virginia Tech.

Though Charles Griffes is fairly well known to the many knowledgeable listeners who frequent the Gardner, Kenneth Frazelle may not be. Up until my preparations for this outing, I would have to count myself among those who had never encountered his music that has been commissioned by prominent artists the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Emmanuel Ax. The sixty-year old composer was present for the performance of his portrait of the South with an attractive title of “Songs in the Rear View Mirror,” which dates from 2010.

The one-hour program started with Roman Sketches Op. 7 by Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) composed when he was only 30. Best known of all the four pieces, which are much more than just sketches, is the “White Peacock.” Richard Masters understands this impressionistic work as one in a contemporary vein with his delicious jazz-like voicings of the rich Ravel-like harmonies and brilliant but hard-edged outbursts. His idea of the bird was less mysterious as he boldly pronounced the Griffes’s image sharply and often abruptly.

With more of Griffes, this time “Nightfall,” Masters’ penchant for pianism over imagery became more certain. Atmosphere, a description hardly ever escaping music that can be linked to Impressionism, was missing. More jarring moves came in “The Fountain of the Acqua Paola. In Masters’s “Fountain” the light was hitting the water with such intensity that the splays were near-blinding. Otherwise, the young and serious pianist’s power and flawless technique were impressive. Despite the urging of Abrams Curator of Music Scott Nickrenz for more encouragement from us in the audience, an apparent disconnect between performer and listeners prevailed.

It was Kenneth Frazelle’s music that took up a good deal of concert time, there being ten songs in all. Frazelle wrote about his work. “Part road trip and part childhood and reminiscence, Songs in the Rear View Mirror is an evocative and haunting musical portrait of Southern life and art.” And later, the work “takes the listener on a journey past abandoned barns, tangles of kudzu and evangelizing road signs.” A handsome brochure with photographs of various scenes of Hale County, Alabama and the poems Frazelle chose to set (who authored them?) was a most helpful guide.

Now the question about my missing something must be addressed. I honestly most regrettably must report my response to obvious commitment of both composer and performers as negative. Both composition and performance were decidedly dated, unabashedly melodramatic.

Masters, Findlen and Frazelle (file photo)
Masters, Findlen and Frazelle (file photo)

Findlen postured in slinky to dreamy modes. But it was her limited voicings that raised red flags. Now soft, now loud, and very little in between could not carry the day. When very soft, there was a tinge of loveliness, but very little voice support. Her high and loud range turned to shrieks, especially when going past the talky score that wound up with pure speech. What could she do? The composition was indulgent; the word “higher” in the final song “Long Drift” was sung 18 times. And if that was not enough to put a period on this failed work, Findlen was asked to sing an “ah” three times. The piano punctuated this and that textual phrase as if to say, did you get that. But why do words such as “drifting” get punched out? This was incoherent, if not inept writing and singing.

At concert end, still more curious was Nickrenz’s clapping, shouting, and whistling like a cheerleader for one of those events where I pondered, “and what am I missing?”

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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