An unlikely journey through Schubert’s Winterreise which began at 5:30 on a dank Monday, was sung by a mezzo-soprano—hardly unheard of—but much less likely to be encountered live than on a recording. Unlikelier still was the instrumentation: instead of piano, we heard an arrangement for string quartet. But perhaps most more unlikely, and happily so, was the venue: the (530) Mystic Learning Center, in the Mystic Public Housing Development in East Somerville. The concert was part of a series titled “Around Hear”, organized by Marji Gere, who also played first violin. The series’s website articulates its goals:
The goal of this endeavor is to offer a highly accessible, regular time and space for people from a wide spectrum of life experiences to gather and listen with openness, depth, and creativity—to music, to themselves, and to each other.
All evidence indicated that they took this goal seriously. The elaborate booklets, illustrated in part with simple cartoons by Gere and mysterious looking “abstractions” by Sunshine Martin, contained four different translations: English, Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole. Hot cocoa was poured before the event (listeners were encouraged to get more halfway through as the ensemble re-tuned). Pizza arrived afterward.
Perhaps the unlikeliest aspect of the evening was the very idea of presenting 75-plus minutes of Lieder, much of it dark and heavy, as an “accessible” outreach. About 25 people attended. I cannot say how many Haitian Creole booklets were taken, but the concert did seem to have had modest success in reaching its audience: three young boys in the front row, perhaps between 10 and 12, remained until the end, and the promise of pizza can’t have been the whole reason they stayed.
The performance itself was pleasant, if also a work in progress. The arrangement, by Richard Krug, a member of the Copenhagen String Quartet, is faithful to the original: he added nothing merely for the sake of novelty. The opening songs drew very little attention to their scoring; by the middle, Krug gambled a bit more. “Auf dem Fluße” contrasted the effect of cello pizzicato and arco very effectively; “Rast” did so across the ensemble. “Irrlicht” conjured a convincing will-o’-the-wisp out of layered prolonged tones. The louder dramatic songs “Der stürmische Morgen” and “Mut” gained impact from the weight of the larger ensemble. Of course, a string quartet is not a piano, and Winterreise is too familiar for one not to miss the piano in places. Despite McGuire’s best efforts, the low rumble of the cello in “Im Dorfe” leaves one missing the percussiveness that makes the bass end of the piano so profound; the quiet sections of “Frülingstraum” sounded sweet, but lacked the spaciousness and openness of separately articulated notes in the piano. In some places, Krug traded one effect for another. For example, the dissonance that appears in the recurring chorale in “Das Wirtshaus” sounded merely pretty upon its first appearance instead of wrenching, but as it returned it got louder and louder, with increasing depth and richness. “Die Leiermann” actually describes a string instrument—a hurdy-gurdy—and so the drone of that instrument could be accurately represented, though it no longer “tolled” as it does on the piano. Perhaps there was also a missed opportunity here: the old man is playing on an old instrument with numb fingers, and at once point a striking, sour sound came from the ensemble, which sounded just right for this Beckettian scene; but it wasn’t sustained. A lucky mistake, or a risk not fully taken?
Mezzo-soprano Jazimina MacNeil knew how to use her attractive voice well in the close, but surprisingly accommodating, acoustic of a small, but high ceilinged general-purpose gathering space. A certain sameness to her delivery may have been due in part to the fact that singer and ensemble have not yet fully melded. The size and nature of the ensemble already pulls the vocalist into a more overtly performative role, and away from the intensity and intimacy one expects from a hand-in-glove partnership in this dark, disquieting, and profound duet of piano and voice. At times the quartet members dissipated their energy listening more to each other than to MacNeil.
This same group repeat the work in upstate New York later this year in a more traditional venue, and one hopes the intervening time will bring them closer together and allow more nuances and surprises to develop. However, this untraditional performance in an unlikely space never felt dull or workmanlike, despite tempos consistently on the slow side. And while we old hands might have wished for a more typical, hushed concert experience at times, the three-year old girl who sat (and walked around) in front of me, occasionally humming along (in tune!), had a wonderful time. Given the aspirations of the organizers, that means the evening was a complete success.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.