What would a music and a landscape curator have to say? What would a specially formed Isabella Ensemble and an Olmsted Quartet have to play? What relationships would they expose? Sunday afternoon’s sold-out Calderwood Hall wanted to know.
Naturally, the inquisitive would have different expectations, connecting music with just about anything continues the ongoing pursuit among disciplines as many and diverse as mathematics, psychology, topography, not to mention politics. And the list goes on. Many were surprised to learn that the Gardner is the only museum in the world with both a Curator in Music, George Steel; and a Curator of Landscape, Charles Waldheim; who is the author of Landscape as Urbanism: A General Theory.
A dizzying afternoon resulted from an overabundance of music from piano solos, quartets, and various chamber ensembles to songs and operatic excerpts fortified with a surfeit of quotes and stories somehow tied to the music which Steel and Waldheim had gathered in their research. For some of those attending who have given thought to the subject, little insight was forthcoming. John James Audubon, Frederick Olmsted, Frederic Church, and Betye Saar, whose work is now on exhibit, were some of curator’s references along with that of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself. The two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza needed more focus, Lully to Léon, Versailles to Cuba. Talk about the marble courtyard and Alceste sidestepped. The comprehensive program notes from Paul Griffiths and Steele stated Indígena “raises questions about the relationship between people and place; the music leaves these unanswered.” The curators shoehorned 13 compositions into some odd, some bemusing headings: “Natural Landscapes,” Designed Landscapes,” “Uncanny and Eschatological Landscapes,” “Performance in the Landscape,” and “Place-Making Through Music.”
The role of the curator evolving from caretaker to connector through community outreach and education explains, in part, Gardner’s step outside. Virtually an unknown today, Anthony Philip Heinrich traveled a century ago, from Kentucky to Boston to perform. Reprinted in the handout, the title page of “The Log House” graphically informs us of the composer working away out front, scores of his strewn nearby. Soprano Maggie Finnegan soared through “The thundering Fall! The bubbling stream…Nature’s whispers…trilling arpeggios.” One of the poet’s other lines could describe her singing “With wild sweet play,” and I would offer with dazzlement musically and virtuosically.
One assumes the advertised Olmsted Quartet played Anton Webern’s rarely performed Quartet, Op. 22 from 1930. No such ensemble name appears on the program. Clear enough that “The Log House” fell under the category of “Natural Landscapes” but not at all clear why the Webern did. From the score, curators read the composer’s own words describing each of a number of themes in “extra-musical” terms. How many listeners could keep track or even begin to identify themes as abstract in this style as they are? Winterstein, violin; Lanz, clarinet; Stäudlin, saxophone; and Vainshtein, piano; kept my ears pinned to their deeply penetrating receptivity, as landscapes completely disappeared from tone pictures. How did Caroline Shaw’s string quartet movement, especially considering its long title, “The Orangerie” from Plan & Elevation: The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks,” befit curatorial remarks when the movement itself took but two minutes? Its minimalist design may be obvious, but one is asked to ponder its perspective on nature. . .maybe forced?
Pianist Peter Dugan naturalized Amy Beach’s popular Hermit Thrush at Evening with a well-pronounced birdcall against a rich harmonic backdrop. Could the curators have taken up the matter of authenticity of birdsongs translated to the piano? And what about addressing those unexplained piano harmonies accounting for most of Beach’s evening encounter?
The Isabella Ensemble under conductor Julius Williams vividly resounded the soundscape of Lully’s Prologue to Alceste with Ian Watson, harpsichord, and Velleda Miragias, viol da gamba, 18th-century tonal colorists par excellence.