A receptive Tsai Center audience on Friday took in Richard Pittman ably led Boston Musica Viva performance of “Mad Scenes” containing substantive works from composers Andy Vores, Bernard Hoffer, and Arnold Schoenberg.
Fortunately for us, Vores and Hoffer were both in attendance (Schonberg sent his regrets), and provided us with some insight into the origin of the works, as well as a glimpse into the inner workings of contemporary composition techniques.
Commissioned for BMV in 2013, Vores’ Fabrication 15: Amplification received a second Boston performance. As Vores explained on stage before the concert, Fabrications comes from a larger collection of 32 inventions, each with a name that defines the mood and feeling. Amplification, as Vores explains, is a result of a summertime stroll through the Harvard campus where he happened upon a student playing a piano rag with “charming little mistakes, fabulously slowly.” The thick, palatable heat of Boston summer, combined with the luxuriously rich suspended chords of the rag provided him the idea to create a piece to memorialize this moment.
Rather than create his own rag, he “subjected” (Vores’ word) Joplin’s Peacherine Rag to an atmospheric and environmentally imaginative treatment. The piece, scored for chamber ensemble, began with the piano and strings in seeming complete disjunction, as if each player were carefully placing their fingers on the keys to form the correct chords, with an undetermined amount of time separating each subsequent chord. The cello being the exception, occasionally embodying the charming mistakes of the student by being slightly off the precise rhythmic articulation.
The rag tune was first presented in full on the xylophone, which was then “amplified” in harmonic rhythm in the piano as if it were an aural picture flip book. The violin, flute, and xylophone, in microtones, wonderfully depicted the oppressive heat off the sidewalks, with occasional screeching of the violin and flute in extreme dissonance, such that the MBTA bus brakes interrupted and sonically obfuscated the listeners’ attention to the rag. The movement began in a percussive, disjointed chord series which reverberated through Tsai Performance center, and ended in a hushed haze, with sforzandi to the final cadence. Vores said at the beginning that the piece is an “amplification in one sense, and exactly the opposite in another.” After hearing it, his explanation is perfectly accurate.
Hoffer’s Lear in the Wilderness celebrates Shakespeare’s 400th birthday (and also death day, how dramatic of him!) with a setting of the final monologue of the crazed King from the fifth act of the Bard’s masterpiece.
As his curtain speech, Hoffer gave a brief account of the familial lineage of the Royal family, making connection to King Lear, and to the difficulty that a Catholic had whilst living in protestant England—Just ask Mary Queen of Scots. He asserted that Shakespeare’s ability to make “political criticism through the mouth of a madman,” offered him a vehicle to effect social and political discourse without fear of authoritative backlash. Hoffer’s intention, self-confessed, was to use the text as a vehicle to write “crazy music.” While this did happen, it was not in the way that Hoffer originally intended.
In its form, more of a film score, it used musical effects to reiterate textual utterance. In the first movement of five, declamatory trumpets signify the entrance of the king with a fanfare which became a central motif, used in both the voice and instruments throughout the chamber ensemble. Baritone, David Kravitz entered with unkempt hair, untucked and unbuttoned black shirt, seeming like he had not slept in a week. His initial vocal entrance, blaring that he was, in fact, the king. If there were any question of that assertion, Kravitz’s sonorous baritone entered with such authority that the audience collectively knelt in their chairs to his majesty.
Hoffer used less than subtle text painting elements to further articulate the text. Such as when Brown bills are mentioned, a fluttering flute obbligato, and when Kravitz stepped on a mouse, a percussive whip was used to clever, if not somewhat predictable effect.
The third movement, “Isn’t not the king,” employed clever use of a jazzy rhythmic and harmonic effect as homage to Cole Porter. Hoffer suggested that Porter’s selection of the “birds do it, bees do it” text, was directly from Shakespeare’s monologue, and thus in response to this, the movement could well have been from a torch song.
The fourth movement featured cello and chimes, with violin, bass clarinet, and cello in canon. Through the cacophony of the impending madness that King Lear is facing, there is a moment of clarity in a lyrical hymn on the piano and chimes that lulled the audience into a false sense of security, as the hymn did not cadence but the “Rascal Beadle” erupted in bombast and caused those sitting beside me to jump from their seats, which was exactly the intention.
At the finale of the work, and Lear’s sanity, Kravitz left his music stand and pulling on his shirt bellowed into the hall, “Kill, Kill, Kill…” He abandoned his resonant and supple voice for a more guttural scream that echoed through the hall and dissipated into stunned silence, thus ending the first half of the program.
Forming the second half of the evening, Schoenberg’s Serenade Op.24, written in seven movements for chamber orchestra as before, with the addition of lute and guitar and a baritone solo to the text of one of Petrarch’s sonnet. While the Serenade is Schoenberg’s first adventure in twelve-tone serialism, one can hear foreshadowing of future works in this medium, specifically Pierrot Lunaire.
While tonally there is not much connection to the lilting melodies of the Viennese waltz, in form and structure, it is glaringly apparent that the dance forms directly influenced the composer. In the first movement the lute acts as the bass and provides fairly consistent downbeats for the guitar and rest of the ensemble to play the second and third beats of the waltz. The feeling alternated from a waltz to a Spanish flamenco beat with the guitar strumming and the strings providing pizzicato accompaniment, and cello’s bow percussively imitating castanets.
Subsequent movements included a minuet in form similar to that of Mozart, but with several independent melodic lines creating second Viennese harmony, complete with ritard leading to a Schonbergian finish line. Kravitz returned for the fourth movement with shirt tucked in and hair combed, looking like he was now prepared to sing a concert. He gave an impassioned reading of the Petrarch sonnet, but unfortunately, try as he might, in the middle voice he was lost in the texture of the ensemble. This is however, not the sole fault of Kravitz, but is a compositional hazard for vocal writing as if it were any other instrument.
The highlight of the Serenade, however, was the seventh movement appropriately entitled Lied ohne worte. The arching melody was played by the violin with a permeating sehnsucht. The guitar and bass clarinet accompaniment provided a solid foundation for the violin to rise to the stratosphere in a chilling pianissimo as a final exasperated plea.
The programming in this concert was intended to feature the baritone voice, and did so to an extent, with Kravitz using every available color to paint the words of Lear and Petrarch. However, the Boston Musica Viva core ensemble deserves great praise for their synergy, precision, and ability to function on one collective breath for the ensemble. In that light, I have referred only to the instrument in this article, as each ensemble member acted as a limb of the same body, and therefore the brilliance of this concert was the cohesion of the players rather than the virtuosity of any individual.
The BMV Ensemble comprises Ann Bobo (Flute), William Kirkley (Clarinet), Robert Schulz (Percussion), Geoffrey Burleson (Piano), Bayla Keyes and Gabriella Diaz (Violins), Lila Brown (Viola), Jan Müller-Szeraws (Cello), Sue Faux (Mandolin), Berit Strong (Guitar), led by Richard Pittman (Music Director).