IN: Reviews

Distillation Was Icumen


After but two years of teaching theory at Carnegie Mellon, Joseph Summer retired, in 1981, to devote himself fulltime to composing and, we might add, self-presenting in annual concerts the results of his musical responses to the Bard of Avon. His latest, at Jordan Hall Saturday night, drew its inspiration and organizing principle from a beloved vocal work of Brahms, whose Four Songs swim in the sumptuous pool of a women’s chorus accompanied by two French horns and harp. If only one of the songs had a Shakespeare connection, that was enough to warrant its pride of placement in this “Summer Distillation.” Summer wrapped a program of mostly his own works around the Brahms.

Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass…

The composer relates that when he was a student at Oberlin in the early ’70s, a coed asked him to sit in on a rehearsal of Opus 17. “The opening solo horn appealed to me [a hornist], but when the women’s voices entered I began to cry, and then weep. I could barely restrain myself from sobbing. I sat transfixed, a liquid prisoner of the awesome beauty of the Brahms.” Many of us react that way to this composer; whenever Brahms writes for voice or horn, something very satisfying happens. How many readers realize that more than half of Brahms’s oeuvre includes singing? We all know the German Requiem, maybe the Alto Rhapsody, but how many have heard Nänie or Schicksalslied or the unjustly underperformed Magalone cycle?

Despite the surpassingly lofty opening solo from hornist Josh Michal, this Brahms traversal did not quite engender the Sehnsucht described above, probably because the chorus was a mere quartet—albeit a good one, with individualistic voices blending to perfection. But even in a performance that was merely fine, Brahms’s gift to us blazed on this night as the summer solstice.

Credit is due as well to Kevin Owen on horn two. With his part unfolded six feet wide across three music stands, he duetted uproariously with a mock harridan Thea Lobo in Summer’s “O God, That I Were a Man”, an uproarious scene that recalled Ernst Lubitsch’s mayhem on the proposition in “I Don’t Want To Be a Man”.

Each of the 11 other short pieces (including four world premieres) utilized either a subset or an expansion on the Brahms forces. The gifted sopranos Jessica Lennick and Jennifer Sgroe, mezzos Thea Lobo and Sophie Michaux; hornists Owen and Michal, and the effective, hardworking harpist Franziska Huhn (onstage all night long) followed the clear beat and shapely direction of Tim Ribchester with great expectations and an involvement fully formed.

Perhaps because of the instrumentation, Summer’s sound world on this night, in the treatment of the playwright’s texts, carried to these ears whiffs of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings as well an angular revision of Vaughan William’s Serenade to Music.

After last year’s Summer Shakespeare, BMInt’s Virginia Newes described the composer’s clearly tonal language and unabashedly lyrical style. I would add that while it’s certainly not the opposite of lyrical, it is not melodic. Responsive to text and various in effect it is without any doubt.

At one extreme, Sonnet CXXXIII brought its own particular torture as attitudinally voiced tenor Neal Ferreira intoned “It is not enough to torture me” perhaps 50 times in the company of the energetic harp thrummings. We got the point. In setting the more romantic Sonnet CIV, Summer gave the Gallic minx Michaux some repose to sell “To me, fair friends, you can never be old”—to great effect.

Summer doesn’t convey the meter of the poetry quite as well as the prosodic declamations. Shakespearean sonnets want to be read aloud with plummy accents and knowing gazes and attention to the words’ often occult slyness. The music did close to nothing to improve upon them. “Was ist Sylvia?” in Schubert’s immortal setting should give pause to any composer who wishes to go there. Not Summer, whose take smoothed out the strophistry. We got the words clearly, in buttermilk tones from Lobo, but the harp part supplied the greater interest. And why did the setting peter out? After all, Sylvia is excelling … to her let us garlands bring.

“If By Your Art” should have channeled Tempestuousness more, although we much appreciated soprano Lennick’s clean focus and fond care. There were perhaps too much sensuality and not enough mad scene, though from a lesser artist the harp’s frequent pedal changes would have evoked crazed outbursts.

Soprano Jennifer Sgroe’s star turn came in Schumann’s Three Songs based on Körner’s settings of Byron’s Hebrew Melodies. Even though accompaniment in arpeggios and rolled chords is specified in the urtext for harp or piano, it felt effortful in Huhn’s hands. Sgroe managed with patrician ease and polished vocal refinement to place us in the German Romantic world of death and pain and heroism.

We are cheered to report on the contribution of sometime BMInt contributor and composer about town Benjamin Pesetsky. His Questions and Answers from All’s Well that Ends Well (I i) opens in something of a unison plainsong, “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.” His adoption of the sonorities of trio of women plus two horns and harp was expertly exploited throughout. In setting the text, Pesetsky at times adopted Shakespearean patterns and at other times ignored them. Overall his pulse accorded with the Bard’s, and he applied his personal brand of lyrical impulse with generosity.

Finally, it must needs be asserted that in providing discernible texts, the stylishly unreadable Dadesque booklet design by Tyler Coste frustrated our attempts at comprehension. Its several-sized fonts disgorged in all caps, tightly condensed and with practically zero leading. The variously expanded or compressed score images filled spaces without regard to the shapes of notes or staff. A visual nightmare was handed to patrons.

And as our colleague Vance Koven once said, “The negligible crowd put out as much noise in approval as it could.”

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


18 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Negligible crowd? How can one expect a decent attendance if the event isn’t publicized? I am very, very knowledgeable about the local classical music schedule. This is the first time I heard about this event. It wasn’t listed on the NEC calendar either online or outside Jordan Hall. There were no posters on the NEC bulletin boards about it. Even the Boston Musical Intelligencer didn’t include it on it’s calendar of upcoming events. Lee, as the publisher of this journal, if you thought this event was worth reviewing, why didn’t you inform your readers that it was taking place in advance? You should accept some responsibility for the low attendance.

    Comment by Bennett — April 13, 2017 at 6:12 pm

  2. The commenter is wrong. The event was most certainly in the BMInt calendar.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 13, 2017 at 6:16 pm

  3. Unfortunately I can’t scroll back to see past BMInt calendar listings, unlike the NEC calendar. I do know that I checked the BMInt listings multiple times when making plans for that weekend. It is hard to believe that I could have missed that. It definitely wasn’t advertised or listed where it took place.

    Comment by Bennett — April 13, 2017 at 6:45 pm

  4. Do you doubt the publisher? I believe that you could have missed it!

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 13, 2017 at 6:57 pm

  5. I do doubt the publisher. I am very methodical when investigating musical events. However, as I indicated, there no longer seems to be any way to confirm or deny what you are saying. I find this site to be a VERY valuable resource and I recommend it to others, but it does occasionally contain errors. Could I have missed it? There is a very remote chance. However, we are getting away from my main point. The event was not well-publicized. Whether or not this journal listed it or not (which I still doubt), I saw no mention of it anywhere else. Not everybody checks this journal regularly. You can still view past events on the NEC calendar. Nothing is or was listed as taking place in Jordan Hall on April 8, 2017. The bulletin boards at NEC are plastered with flyers about upcoming musical events,including many for events not taking place at NEC. I regularly, carefully view them. There was not a single one that I observed for that event. It is safe to say that few even knew that it was taking place. There were other great options that night. The crowd still would probably not have been huge had more people known about it, but it most likely would have been bigger. My criticism was primarily directed towards whomever handles publicity for the Shakespeare Concerts.

    Comment by Bennett — April 14, 2017 at 12:49 am

  6. Dear Bennett:I am responsible for the publicity for The Shakespeare Concerts, and your ire is correctly directed at myself. The Shakespeare Concerts has been performing in April for ten straight years at Jordan Hall, and last week’s ” ‘negligible’ ” crowd (to quote the quote) was perhaps our largest in Boston. As executive director for The Shakespeare Concerts I have had GMs, in the past, who spent $ on PR and our crowds were minimal. Currently I am contemplating a new administrative staff (yes, a staff) in order to deal with our PR issues. I could venture some guesses about my PR failures in Boston, for the last 15 years, but they would be guesses. The Shakespeare Concerts are better attended in China, the Caribbean, Western Massachusetts, pretty much any location on the planet, than at Jordan Hall. I will endeavor to replace my incompetent self presently in regard PR. (There was a smattering of posters, a radio campaign on WHRB during MET broadcasts, a poster outside NEC, good position, and an email campaign. If you would allow me to place you on our email list, simply visit the website: and the sign up option emerges sua sponte.)

    Comment by Joseph Summer — April 14, 2017 at 12:03 pm

  7. Bennett (or Mr. Bennett): Get a grip! I downloaded the listing from the Intelligencer and I am not lying. The small attendance probably had more to do with the number of events that night.

    Comment by Mary Runkel — April 14, 2017 at 8:22 pm

  8. Joseph my attempt to sign up for your email list met with failure. I had written you a message. There was a checked box for your email list. I left the checkmark in the box and soon after received an email from the Shakepeare Concerts, asking me to confirm that I wanted to be on the list. I did so. However, that was not enough for you. I was then asked to confirm my humanity, to prove that I wasn’t a robot. However, a blue circle then started spinning and continued to do so; the reCaptcha wouldn’t work. I wrote another message to the Shakespeare concerts describing that experience. The same thing happened again. I received no replies to my messages, only solicitations to join your email list, followed by expressed doubts that I really wanted to do so. Music is definitely your strong point, not PR. Was the poster on the wall outside the NEC building? I don’t pay much attention to posters on the outside walls, which are mainly it seems for expensive non-NEC events, but I do carefully check the bulletin boards inside. It would have been great if you could have been included in the online NEC calendar. I do see non-NEC events taking place in Jordan Hall, such as the Longwood Symphony concerts, posted in the NEC calendar. Mary you are right about the competing events and I probably still would have attended the great event which I did that night, but it is nice to know of other options. I don’t know how small the attendance actually was, as Joseph says it was perhaps their largest in Boston. However, poor publicity didn’t help.

    Comment by Bennett — April 15, 2017 at 2:44 pm

  9. “… in the early ’70s, a coed asked him to sit in on a rehearsal of Opus 17.”

    I am disappointed to see the dismissive term “coed” used in this public and professional venue, whether the young woman was a professional track musician or not, and whether the choice of word was initially the reviewer’s or the composer’s. [The fact that it is not in quotation marks tells me it’s either the reviewer’s choice or, if initially the composer’s, also acceptable to the reviewer.]

    Women do not think of themselves as coeds. The term dates back to a culture of prejudice, and its use here, by extension, reinforces for this forum any remaining marginalization of women in music or other fields.

    I follow the BMI to engage in conversations about music and related explorations. I would have preferred not to have had to choose either to remain silent or point out this mishap.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — April 16, 2017 at 3:39 pm

  10. In the era of Trump (grab ’em….) or O’Reilly (millions paid out to justifiably aggrieved women), ‘coed’ seems pretty tame. And lame. Speaks to the often archaic ‘style’ of this journal, which often aspires to a 19th c. Beacon Hill club formality, yet is online in the 21c. Anyway, “Coed” is a term that hasn’t been in regular usage in any communities I inhabit since maybe 1970.

    Comment by rlhevinne — April 16, 2017 at 6:35 pm

  11. rlhevinne:

    Are you female? (Likely not.)
    Either way, your defense is also disappointing – and unconvincing.

    Whether the term is “lame” or not, I doubt that, despite aspiring to an “archaic” style, this journal wants to alienate – or intentionally or unintentionally marginalize- its women followers. I thought the idea was to acknowledge present day musicians and to broaden the appreciation for classical music in the community at large. (In any case “coed” was not a 19th century word either.)

    I know the founders of the journal are Harvard affiliated, as am I, but Harvard today welcomes improvements and suggestions to make its rhetoric more inclusive.

    As for “tame” – is Trump the standard now?

    I thought I might get a “thank you for pointing this out” (which I still might- or not.)
    [I am assuming you are not the publisher/reviewer, who seems to comment under his own full name.]

    As I said, it is not my preferred activity on this site to deal with discrimination issues, but it was either remain silent or speak up.

    (If an African American or other minority member reader points out a discriminatory use of a word in this or a similar forum, are we going to say “well, that’s pretty tame compared to some worse things going on and being said in the country right now?” — I sure hope not.)

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — April 16, 2017 at 7:55 pm

  12. Good grief. You’d think the word had been “redskin”.
    “Coed” certainly is a 19th-c word. I mean, just look things up before asserting publicly. Of course it’s not “regular usage”. Of the three current major American dictionaries, only one says it may be considered derogatory. Not the other two. It’s quaint, sure, as sometimes suits us … except it was in an indirect quote. Try and imagine how it would have looked in quotes.

    Comment by david moran — April 16, 2017 at 10:58 pm

  13. The ideas expressed on these pages….etc.

    Now I take responsibility for including the word “coed” in an indirect quote. I have to say that it jumped out of the program booklet as a quaint atavism. On the other hand, in its original usage, it stood in a broader context for togetherness and equality…all the students at a coed college are co-educated.

    In the context of the quote, the sex of the unnamed fellow-student was probably irrelevant, but the flavor of geezer chic proved irresistible.

    Tanya should also ask our female-composer-advocate-co-writer Liane Curtis if this mag maintains a discriminatory workplace.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 17, 2017 at 7:57 am

  14. Are you female? (Likely not.) Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — April 16, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    Hmmm. Sexism much? Pot meet kettle?
    Bracing myself for coming presumptions that I am a Trumpite, or other form of Neanderthal. Bring it on. I’m a tough girl.

    And speaking of redskins, I notice at some supermarkets, redskin potato salad has been renamed red ‘bliss’ potato salad.
    There, that’s better.

    Comment by rlhevinne — April 17, 2017 at 8:47 am

  15. Dear Mr. Moran:

    The word “coed”, when used as a noun to describe a female college student is discriminatory. Here’s why: It assumes that the male student is the norm, the “default.”

    Please note that I am not attributing discriminatory *intentions* to anyone in this forum. I do not doubt that the founders of this forum aim to have a platform which honors people’s equality in usual matters of race, gender identification, sexual orientation, national origin, non-context related disabilities etc.

    This is why I am making myself vulnerable by pointing out my reaction in this case – in good faith that my comment will be taken in good faith as well.

    I am a musician. Why would I want to make a fuss about a discriminatory word (though some might find its “tameness” should give it a pass) – and risk being pegged in a professional forum as “…”[whatever derogatory term some people may use to describe people who speak up on issues like this?]

    Because I think my comment is relevant. Because there is history (and still practice in some circles) that assumes a woman is not likely to be as capable an artist as a man (as creative, as powerful, as passionate, as smart, whatever the context is) – unless she demonstrates otherwise. This is already an added obstacle to any artists’ already otherwise challenging path. As a result, moreover, many women then do not get the same chances or equal encouragement to in fact demonstrate otherwise. [There are exceptions, of course, which is why I am saying ‘many’ women.]

    I do not think the BMI founders want to reinforce this prejudice in the least. This is why I am sensitive that a dismissive word not be used to describe women, just in order not to unwittingly reinforce any potential sense of discrimination among some of your widespread readership.

    Note also that I did not say a “derogatory” word. It is the more subtle cases that we need to pay attention to.

    A side note and a hypothetical scenario: I coincidentally just found out that the word “homosexual”, when used as a noun, is considered derogatory when used to describe someone who is homosexual. In other words it is OK to say “he is homosexual” but not “he is *a* homosexual” – because the latter instance groups the person into something other than the common humanity of us all. That’s the reasoning given.

    I was not aware of this until now. So IF I had unwittingly used the offensive phrase in something I wrote, and if someone then had tried to raise my awareness, I would not have pointed out the “tameness” of the mishap compared to what else is taking place in national discourse. I would not have said “good grief” it’s not as if I called someone a “…”[whatever is more derogatory.]

    I would have thanked the person for raising my awareness and apologized for not noticing the implied exclusion in the phrase.

    I am not expecting thanks, and certainly not apologies (even though I said above I thought I might get a thank you for pointing this out)

    I am simply surprised and further dismayed at the resistance I am receiving.

    I think this should be all from me.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — April 17, 2017 at 8:48 am

  16. I had not seen Lee Eiseman’s or rhlevinne’s comments before my last post, so an attempt at some final clarifications:

    to Lee Eiseman:

    It crossed my mind, too, that the sex of the unnamed student may have been irrelevant, then I thought perhaps it was mentioned because she happened to be in the women’s chorus at the rehearsal in question.

    Yes, indeed all students are co-educated, but the noun “coed” is applied to women only.

    I hope my response above to David Moran will clarify that I hardly thought the BMI was a discriminatory establishment – on the contrary, I wrote because I trusted its undiscriminatory values- , and suggesting I check with a female composer advocate is not the point.

    To rhlevinne:

    Asking you “are you female?” and adding “likely not” is not sexist.

    I asked if you are female because I wanted to have an idea what your personal experience might be in this matter.
    I added likely not, not because of your comment. My mistake was to think you might be a specific individual I had in mind. I was wrong, and it was stupid of me to publicly comment based on that wrong guess.

    I never assumed you were a Trumpite or anything else you suggest. The question “Is Trump the standard now?” is intended to convey that no matter what other harsh stuff is going on elsewhere, it helps to be careful about subtler oversights.

    Comment by Tanya Bartevyan — April 17, 2017 at 9:34 am

  17. >I think this should be all from me.

    …but not, I think, from others.

    I would not feel right in not publicly thanking Tanya Bartevyan for her penultimate posting. She mentions her dismay at the resistance she is receiving for her articulate and well-reasoned words. I hope a “thank you” will help lessen the dismay and the vulnerability she is feeling. It took courage for her to write what she did.

    That she did so without concealing herself behind a nom de plume is all the more impressive.

    With appreciation,

    Jonathan Brodie

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — April 17, 2017 at 10:11 am

  18. Dear “Bennett,” I will attempt to unravel the website mystery. Rest assured that at some point in this life I shall ameliorate some of the problems you describe. I, too, hate to prove I am not a robot, especially when I fail so often at this task. Dear everyone else: the use of the term “coed” was mine, not the BMInt critic. I used it deliberately, to limn pithily the zeitgeist of the period. I don’t apologize for it.

    Comment by Joseph Summer — April 19, 2017 at 9:42 am

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