IN: Reviews

Folktales and Myths

by

Julian Grant, composer

Emmanuel Music began its “Chamber Music Festival” with two concerts last weekend; Julian Grant’s SALT, a saga (for four voices and piano trio) occupied the centerpiece of Saturday’s first installment, the first public in-person event Emmanuel Music has presented since our lives were disrupted in March of 2020. Harvard Musical Association commissioned Salt in honor of Emmanuel Music’s 50th Anniversary.

Regarding “firsts,” we distinguish between the presentation of cantatas during the Sunday service at Emmanuel Church on the one hand and a “public concert” on the other. The cantata program re-started in the fall of 2020 under very strict limitations, and has been open to the public in a quiet way for some months. The 50th anniversary festivities celebrate the continuous presentation of cantatas in the service at Emmanuel since 1970.

Every Sunday during the academic year, the ensemble presents Bach’s sacred cantata’s during the religious service, coordinated with the readings as they would have been in Bach’s time. The selection has been adjusted to conform to the changes in the reading schedule over the intervening centuries. Note marking the milestone now, though actual anniversary passed in the fog of the pandemic. As with so many things these days we now have, thanks to YouTube, considerable public vs. private confusion. While Saturday’s joyous concert represented the first presentation of SALT, a saga in a public concert, Emmanuel Music gave the actual premiere on April 9th, 2021 at the Harvard Musical Association, which would have been considered the most private of locations, except that the performance, freely available on YouTube, has been viewed by 750 people. [See and hear it HERE starting at 00:14:00]

On this program, “SALT, a saga” followed the following works: Sarabande from Cello Suite No.1 in G Major, BWV 1007 played by Joshua Gordon. and Four Folk Songs for Piano Trio by Gabriela Lena Frank in which Heidi Braun-Hill, violin and Leslie Amper, piano joined Gordon. Vendedora Cholita also by Frank, performed by Braun-Hill directly preceded  Salt.

The pandemic has required many accommodations and adjustments for both the audience and the musicians. One that was very conspicuous on Saturday night was placing the trio of instrumentalists on the floor in front of the chancel arch, rather than within the chancel as has been the habit at Emmanuel in the past. This allowed the four singers to unmask in the chancel with considerable distance from one another and from the instrumentalists. Unexpected benefits became apparent as soon as Gordon started to play. On paper it looked, at least to me, like the one movement of Bach had been included as a gratuitous gesture; we are at Emmanuel, after all. How could we have a concert without a bit of Bach? In the event, however, it proved to be a brilliant choice after the stressful time we have endured.

Gordon read the piece with poignant ease that only a master can achieve. Whatever apprehensions may have existed about venturing into a public space after the months of isolation melted away in the centering beauty of his performance. It provided exactly the needed remedy. The sanctuary filled with the intense resonance of the cello, the unexpected location taking full advantage of the architecture of the room. It was as though he were playing two instruments, his cello and the walls and ceiling of the space.

This beauty continued in the piano trio. I am not very familiar with Frank’s compositions and was surprised by the haunting beauty of the Four Folk Songs, and surprised further to find an echo in the theme from the Sarabande in the fourth section. Amper and Braun-Hill matched the standard of mastery established by Gordon, reading the piece with grace and beauty. Hearing this live, feeling the resonance of the room, sensing the reactions and pleasure of the audience filled me with transporting joy!

Braun-Hill brought us closer to earth, at least to an amusing version of it, with Vendedora Cholita, the second movement of Frank’s Suite Mestiza for solo violin. It conveyed angular sounds, the cacophony of the crowd and nostalgia for the voice of the “vendedora.” It allows full display of the composer’s manipulation of the sounds of familiar instruments into the evocations South America. Braun-Hill dispatched it with commendable skill.

This section of the concert has taken us from the sublime, through the lyrical, to the amusing and earthbound, and now we move to the salt (of the earth). Before commenting on SALT, a saga I will detour a bit to talk about the seasoning. Some years ago Sound Icon spent a weekend exploring the work of Alvin Lucier. Jeffrey Means performed, if that is the right word, “I am sitting in a room” which was to me a revelation. One can find recordings of this piece, but if one listens to a recording, or, I speculate, even listening online, one misses the most important point of the work. Feedback loops submerge the recognizable sounds of the original utterance in such a way that the physical space in which it is being performed starts to speak with its own voice and the experience become very sensual and intimate. Those not in that space are severed from the spatial resonance. Hearing it is not experiencing it. It sometimes takes an extreme and obvious demonstration to sensitize us to subtle experiences, here one is made sensitive to the ways a specific room interacts with the music. The king we are about to meet knows no salt, but once having experienced it he appreciates its importance. I posit that since March 2020, we have been living in the land of the king who has no salt.

SALT, a saga the second half of this concert was scored for piano, violin, cello and four voices: Sarah Moyer, soprano; Krista River, mezzo-soprano; Charles Blandy, tenor; and Will Prapestis, baritone. Moyer also provided the stage direction. Ryan Turner conducted. These Emmanuel Music regulars perform the most solemn music with practiced skill and enormous talent. They surprised by lightening up on with the same skill and talent while wearing paper hats! Moyer’s direction and props introduced us to an unexpected talent. I hope she explores this further. The whole ensemble executed this rather tricky and challenging score with geniality, skill, and wit, without any trace of irony or condescension. Their seeming ease befit a “fairy tale.”

A screen grab from the stream

The plot hews very closely to the namesake Russian folk tales collected by Alexandr Afanas’ev, but with a few changes, principally that Ivan the Ninny, the youngest son, has become a daughter, Babs! And a salty girl she is! After being set up as a prodigal by an amusing drinking song, Babs proves her competence, wins over a king, and marries the princess in the end. This is all perfectly plausible and not the least controversial, a good thing to observe about our society in these dark times. The setup plays with our expectation of a “prodigal son” story, which this is not. It is much closer to the “Joseph” story in Genesis. Babs is enterprising, smart, gets a good return on the portion she is given despite an attack by her jealous brothers. Never underestimate a person, especially a woman, who does not conform to one’s assumptions! There is a happy ending, at least for Babs and us. We have silly hats, kings and giants, and a big party at the end. We are then told on no uncertain terms, and repeatedly, that there is no moral to this tale. Maybe told one time too many; me thinks they do protest too much.

Exemplifying moral behavior is different from illustrating a received precept. Looking at the plot more seriously we find that Babs jettisons the humble cargo her father gave her when she stumbled upon better more valuable one. She is not subject to the sunk-cost fallacy! She cleverly demonstrates the worth of what she has rather than carping about being ignored not being valued, and finally she avoids violence on the part of the giant by opening the door to empathy and understanding. (She got him drunk, rather than fighting with him.) In the Russian fantasy this is all done by Ivan the Ninny, somehow on Saturday it seems much more convincing coming from Krista River, a beautiful force of positive energy.

What a pleasure to hear our musicians sing unmasked! The personality of each character was drawn precisely by the writing. In addition to River, we have the princess, a bright and sparkling soprano, making wonderful use of Moyer’s clear, lyrical, and well-projected delivery. As the King, Blandy exemplified dignity; quite complex rhythms and pacing kept his voice aloof from the other discourse. His characterization contrasted with the giant, ponderous, almost a slow-motion lines that Prapestis delivered with great solemnity and precision despite considerable wardrobe difficulty regarding a handlebar mustache that consistently misbehaved!

There is some equivocation about what to call all of this. Is it a chamber opera, a cantata, a vocal chamber work? Somehow the trio and four singers managed to produce enough full and rich sound to justify the first while having the intimacy of the last, and cantata? Thinking of the Coffee Cantata by Bach makes this seem a perfectly appropriate term. Whatever it is, it succeeds in combining the very highest standards of musical quality with a sincere and charming humor that I find extremely satisfying. Many thanks to the Harvard Musical Association and Emmanuel Music for this gift of beauty and fun!

With a bit of effort, one may order pay-as-you-like tickets to stream Saturday and Sunday’s concerts HERE.

Michael Scanlon is a restoration architect in Boston and a member of Emmanuel Church where he serves on the building commission. He is a passionate fan of Boston’s musical home team!

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