The Merz Trio (professional trio in residence at NEC), its name honoring the layered and fragmenting Merz scrap collages of artist Kurt Schwitters, revealed in its 16-part multimedia show “Those Secret Eyes” (of Mrs. Macbeth) some pointillistic musical episodes from Johannes Maria Staud’s 10 (one-minute) Miniatures, uncertain connections with Brahms and Schumann, but surer footing with Robbie Burns and Verdi’s Macbetto.
Shakespeare’s plays included music of the time—think “Where the Bee Sucks There Suck I” in The Tempest, “How Should I My True Love Know” in Hamlet and “The Willow Song” in Othello. Composers in subsequent centuries have found vivid inspiration in his plays for incidental music and opera. But the concept of using the whispered lines of the Bard’s characters as incidental accompaniments to a more or less conventional chamber music concert struck this writer as novel. Add a dancer-mime, and one witnessed, at NEC’s Plimpton-Shattuck Black Box last night, perhaps the first 21st-century equivalent of a 19th-century melodrama.
Pianist Lee Dionne, violinist and “voice” Bridgid Coleridge, and cellist Julia Yang entered the darkened house and stage with an arrangement of Verdi’s “Una machhia é qui tuttoria” (A stain remains) before Neil Creedon’s variously colored washes came up on movement and dance specialist Caroline Copeland in blood-red chemise. Her strutting and fretting hour upon the stage depicted Mrs. Macbeth’s descent into madness—rather too early. If one saw her performance as a silent movie without intertitles one would more likely have imagined Ophelia. Nowhere, other than in some of Staud’s violent episodes, did we see or hear intimations of the ambitious and malevolent harridan of “Out, damned spot!” Nor did Coleridge’s sonorous taped and close-miked entre-nous line readings convey the histrionic theatricality of a staged production, except in one coup-de-theâtre where she surprised us by standing and declaiming the Bard’s rhetoric.
The playing was something else. Beginning with the Verdi excerpt, the Merz Trio revealed a warmth of tone and a nuanced affection for the materials that placed them in a realm of high artistry.
According to its composer Charlotte Bray, the namesake composition,
Those Secret Eyes is loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and principally the plays’ female characters: Lady Macbeth and the Witches. Set at night, it holds dark undercurrents of suspicion, sin, superstition, and mistrust. Governed by the principal themes of appearance and reality, and ambition and guilt, the piece is driven by a cruel, dry energy.
The scheming, tightly wound opening, strings playing single sul ponticello lines punctuated by the piano, seems as if they are conspiring together and daring each other. The plot thickens with the music becoming faster, more excitable and heavier. Even the melodic lines before the climax are unsettlingly cold and calculated. We wind up back to similar material seen at the opening, as if this short meeting has come to a close, veiled agenda set.
As the trio built from distant scratching to an emphatic and martial forte, Copeland withdrew colored cords from a mysterious box and flounced about while seemingly doing macramé. This was not really dance but rather rhythmically disconnected movement. Her subsequent writhing on the floor must have been invisible to most of the audience. Why did the presenters not raise the adjustable stage?
Then Brahms had a turn to speak. His Piano Trio No. 3 is too strong to be upstaged by imprudent budget staging, and Copeland wisely dematerialized when Brahms strode the boards. The planned disordering of the movements fit into a larger plan which included a couple of Robert Schumann’s Six Studies in Canonic Form for pedal piano, arranged, we think, by Clara. In the first one we could hear the descending “Clara motto” as a cry from the composer’s and performers’ hearts.
The resourceful multitasker Coleridge, a young and attractive mariner and rhymer on these “Banks o’ Doon,” sang Burns’s “Ye Banks and Braces” with a fine Scot brogue and light and well-focused vocal instrument. Soloing at first, she soon harmonized with her own violin; presently the expressive cellist Yang added her instrumental voice. We didn’t much hear from pianist Dionne in this number, but elsewhere he showed himself to be alert to his peers and always beautifully vocal at the keyboard, and not in the Glenn Gould sense.
There followed Staud’s Miniatures 9 and 10, alternately desultory and explosive, both. According to the composer, his set, partly commissioned by Harvard Musical Association and premiered there in 2010, “probes a spectrum of moments that are both delicate internalizations and unfettered explosions, both wildly accelerating and lithely pulsating.” Copeland’s Isadora Duncanny stances somehow seemed to tread more favorably through this modern musical edifice.
A reprise of the Verdi opener brought the well-meaning experiment to a close, as the blackout perhaps brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane. Brahms and Schumann needn’t worry that any man born of woman shall harm them. The Merz Trio is keeping bright the gleam of its recent gold medal, even while expanding the range of concert experience.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer