IN: Reviews

Listening Through Light and Darkness


Composer in residence Jon Deak

Newburyport Chamber Muisc Festival Artists had something in mind other than divertimentos and the like for their Sunday summer afternoon finale. Instead, personages and specters materialized in a seriously plotted program. Early quartets of Haydn and Schoenberg alongside the premiere of a collaborative commission from Deak-Espaillat wanted rapt attention. St. Paul’s Church measurably amplified a concert marked by high-caliber performances.

Violinists Danbi Um, Solenne Paїdassi, violist David Yang, and cellist Clancy Newman again and again would alter perception through their consequential artistry: Haydn hiding light and Schoenberg hiding darkness.

Putting listeners on notice, this festival foursome offered String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 20 as stern. Perhaps determined to make connections with the Schoenberg, their Haydn portrayal surprised. Here, the form-seeking, though never formalist, received boldly drawn contours with a great deal of volume. For a favored move of Haydn, the appoggiatura, an expressive note that first displaces then resolves into the normal note, these Festival Artists leveled out its emotive features. One of these recurring appoggiaturas first appears most prominently in the first phrase of the second movement, the Menuetto. Well-formed by NCMFA were Haydn’s quick snatches of melody occurring in the outer movements. Inner goings-on particularly caught the ear as nuanced, even as ambient. The third slow movement, shifting to the brighter key of G major, somehow maintained the prevailing disturbing mood of the entire Haydn brought by NCMFA. Such was the agitation; their impulse was not quite the Haydn we have come to lovingly know. Yet, the brochure’s commentaries as well as the concert scheme of the Festival’s Artistic Director, David Yang, deserve recognition for the exceptional extent of care given.

Illuminating St. Paul’s, poet-in-residence Rhina P. Espaillat humanely voiced “The Jury” preceding the musical setting by composer-in-residence Jon Deak. Violins would play a sparrow and eagle, viola a pigeon, cello a vulture, where:

four strangers gathered from afar
slipped into talk, as travelers do.
First Eagle said, “How strange they are…

Referring to “creatures” in “new spiked boosts” and “wayward shoes”—very possibly us— the prolific Dominican-American made plain a lighter-tone surface and tougher core. What American composer Deak imagined cast a pall, oddly comedic, over the 13-stanza libretto. The two distinct personages emerged: hers, rising as if from oaks; his, as if from high-rises. An expert craftsman, Deak transposed instruments into bird-like expressions, the vulture being the darkest; a finely tuned quartet of strings doing what birds do when remarkably citified. Elaine Daiber could have been wind and various creatures along with being her natural soprano self courageously leading this newly-formed residential avifauna. Reception for the premiere, clearly enthusiastic, appreciative.

Espaillat then rendered philosophically in English Stefan George’s “Litany and Rapture,” several lines revealing much about both esthetic and technique in Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, opus 10, a work often thought of as visionary:

Tief ist die trauer die mich umdüstert (Deep is the sadness that gloomily comes over me)
Ich löse mich in tönen (I loose myself in tones).

A glowing plethora of affection for Schoenberg’s opening and closing looked to Mahler. A tamped down ferocity overall astounded. Their sudden lightning strikes, coming in the second movement, could be heard as more symbolic than real. With this Daiber-Um-Paїdassi-Yang-Newman ensemble the diabolical, psychotic, the maniacal found something of an empathic, perhaps even humanizing transformation. Certainly, a friendship had formed. Having sat through enough fire-and-brimstone sermons in my youth, now, in my senior years, finding myself in bright-white-walled St. Paul’s with these Festival Artists, I felt protected from those Schoenbergian phantoms.

Recalling a recent NYT review of “Schoenberg: Why He Matters,” John Adams sided with author Harvey Sachs’s stipulation that listeners largely remain ambivalent toward the composer’s expressionist music. In a seminar taught at UMass Boston a good while back, Louis Krasner, who premiered both the Berg and Schoenberg violin concertos, predicted that with the advancement of computers would eventually come a true understanding of this Austrian-American’s music. True?

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).

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