More Furtive Gestures

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Mendelssohn Bicentennial: Crescendo presents rarely heard gems from frère et soeur
March 21, 2009, First Congregational Church, Great Barrington, MA

Review by S. Lachterman

It is perfectly fitting that on J. S. Bach’s birthday (March 21) a tribute should be paid to two composers who lived a century later: Felix Mendelssohn (his bicentenary year), and his gifted sister, composer Fanny Hensel. By the early nineteenth century, Bach, who was viewed as an antique keyboard pedagogue, was to await Felix Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 for posthumous acclaim. Yet, both Felix (Mendelssohn-Bartholdy) and Fanny (Mendelssohn Hensel) wrote remarkable and beautiful choral works, assimilating an extraordinary palate of antiquarian musical idioms and styles. Their mastery of such Catholic and Lutheran idioms was largely owing to their common tutelage by Carl Friedrich Zelter, who imparted his love of Bach and Palestrina to this gifted musical pair.

The vocal ensemble Crescendo has become a formidable artistic force in the region, thanks both to the skills of the singers and their incisive and visionary director, Christine Gevert. On March 21 at Great Barrington’s First Congregational Church, joined by the esteemed soprano Julianne Baird and an excellent crew of local vocalists, Crescendo offered a generous sampling of Latin and German motets from the pens of both Mendelssohns. Also, to place the works in the social context of their lives and travels, excerpts from some sixteen letters were read between the musical numbers: a backdrop of narration illuminating the preciously close relationship between Fanny and Felix, meetings with Goethe, quarrels with their father, being covertly Jewish, secrets, amusements, and the frisson of discovering Italy’s musical life. Narrator Juliet Mattila carefully chose these letters, each of which placed the ensuing work in context.

The occlusion of Fannie’s creative genius behind that of her brother was suppression by design: her father merely adopted the sexual ethics of the period, relegating her to play and compose for private salons, out of the limelight beamed for Felix. This gender injustice was compensated for by Gevert’s inclusion of two of Fannie’s vocal works. One, a strophic lied, Die Nonne, written when she was fifteen, was utterly insouciant and lovely. Baird’s affecting interpretation undoubtedly imparted more than what the mere score offered. This was followed by a recently discovered motet, Zum Fest der heiligen Cäciliæ, a ravishing work that occasionally stuns, especially when bass-baritone Steven Dalin trumpeted “Audi et vide et inclina aurem tuam” – “Hear and see! And lend your ear.” It would be a treat if Crescendo offered a full evening of Fannie’s distinctive and evocative musical voice.

Most of the works heard in the concert were by Felix, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year. Choral pieces spanning from 1826 (Felix at seventeen), to his last year (1847), a stylistic mélange, amply demonstrate his cultural Epicureanism, his educated and refined ear, and a willingness to experiment with vocal textures, unusual harmonic changes, and striking solo interjections.

The first, Te Deum laudamus, was strictly contrapuntal, and was most reminiscent of Bach’s motets. The Ave Maria featured a stratospheric tenor part, beautifully sung by Ron M’Sadoques, with responses by groups of male and female voices. While reminding one of Schütz in its bold harmonic contrasts, the atavistic interplay of Baroque, Renaissance, and Romantic makes Mendelssohn’s voice unique. Another experiment, an a capella pastorale for men’s voices, Beati mortui, combined the traditional Christmas idiom with a prayer for “peace at the end.” The female-voiced Surrexit pastor bonus was ethereal, with a concluding Alleluia that was especially reminiscent of Bach’s Lobet dem Herrn. However, the concert’s first part ended with a specimen of Mendelssohn’s polychoral writing, Hora est. Using the Venetian technique, chori-spezzati, where small choruses are spread about the church, a remarkably dramatic work unfolded: a stentorian baritone solo proclaims “The time is nigh,” and voices awaken in the four corners of the church.

In the second half of the concert, the social insights offered by the letters were especially interesting. For example, Felix’s harsh reproach from his father, Abraham, for not using his “Christian” name, Bartholdy, was a glimpse of how wealthy and cultured Jews, who converted to Christianity, thoroughly abjured their ethnicity; indeed, Felix’s father regarded Felix’s use of “Mendelssohn” as a cursed moniker which would be a pariah to Felix’s career and position in society. After hearing this cautionary letter, the ensuing piece, Mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen? (“My god, why has thou forsaken me”), a plea for deliverance in exchange for a pledge of devotional fealty, provided the most dramatic moments of the concert.

Julianne Baird, of course, shined in the ensembles. However, all other soloists were up to the challenges of this often difficult music. Especially memorable were Jordan Rose Lee, Katherine Griswold, Douglas Schmolze, Steve Dahlin, and Ron M’Sadoques. Kevin Jones provided a sensitive piano accompaniment to Ms. Baird, and also served as organist for choral accompaniment.

The one blemish to the evening offerings was the tribute to J. S. Bach. The grandly plangent final chorus, Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder, was given short shrift with an allegretto reading that left all pathos in the dust. I doubt that Felix would have approved this tempo. However misjudged the pacing of the last piece, the evening best served Bach indirectly, through the infallible sensibilities of frère et soeur Mendelssohn.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

G.F. Handel, Messiah

“Difficult” music, executed by the most skillful musicians for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, is the putative definition of great musical art. Perhaps Bach’s great contrapuntal choral works can be so described. However, the obverse seems to conflate the “popular,” with the “dispensable,” connoting mere light fare. In the canon of choral music, masterpieces of great genius, well suited for amateur performance, but esteemed by almost all, might be reduced to only two works: Handel’s Messiah and Brahms’s Requiem. In particular, Messiah has enjoyed an almost unique position as, perhaps, the most frequently performed work in classical literature. The chorus, “Hallelujah,” the five most quintessential minutes of grandeur known in music, thralls us, stirs us, and as Shakespeare might say, “thunders like a Jove.” The legends that have cropped up about this movement alone convey how much reverence the work inspires. For example, one story goes that George II rose in his seat upon hearing it, impelling all present to do the same – thus, it has become a concert ritual to stand when the chorus delivers. Another tale describes Joseph Haydn weeping upon hearing it in 1791, and uttering that Handel was the “master of us all.” Almost all choruses in Messiah have an infectious pomp. The choruses selected today combine magical doses of archaic splendor with warm jocular dignity that both enchant and coax listeners to sing along. Thus, for generations, “sing-a-long” Messiahs, often termed “Scratch Messiahs,” crop up during Advent with a regularity as the very season itself.

Messiah is also one of the most hastily composed works, occupying Handel a mere twenty-four days in 1741. That it is such a treasure is astonishing. The first public performance took place in Dublin, April 13, 1742. The text, compiled by Charles Jennens, a wealthy landowner and amateur theologian, draws from both the Old and New Testaments. In particular, prophetic sections of Isaiah are combined with various Psalm texts, and are juxtaposed with messianic passages from Luke, Corinthians, Romans, and Revelation. The hurried manner of composition, in part due to Handel’s deteriorating financial condition, is belied by the consistent quality of each aria, recitative and chorus. Handel’s textual colorations were never so skillful and subtle.

In today’s “Sing-In,” thirteen sections from Part I (Advent and Christmas) are presented with an aria and chorus from Part II (Romans X); the evening is capped off with the thrilling final choruses of Part III.

But wait don’t leave: one more Hallelujah for good measure!


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

War and Peace
Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

It's hard to overstate the case for this translation as being essential. It is also hard to avoid hyperbole in its praise. While it might not be the easiest one to read, Pevear and Volokhonsky (P&V) have succeeded in a virtual recreation, in English, of Tolstoy's masterpiece on many apparent levels, and on some other very subtle ones. Abstruse as some of their resultant syntax might be on occasion, the beauty of this English prose and utter faithfulness to every aspect of Tolstoy's apparent intentions is remarkable and overwhelming. Viewing the work as a vast proem gives ample opportunity for P&V elucidation of the symmetrical structures in the work. From the use of alliterative micro-sentences like "Silence ensued." and "Drops Dripped." to the almost obsessive repetitions of phrases, we can begin to appreciate Toltoy not merely as a narrative genius, but a Miltonic architect and chiastic formalist. The choice of unusual, sometimes haunting words ties chapters together. For example, in the description of a sick, dysfunctional bee-hive, given a chapter's space by Tolstoy, bees are described as being "laden" or "unladen," ("empty") with pollen. When, in the next chapter, looters pillaging the ruined hulk of Moscow's carcass, are described using these identical adjectives, there can be no mistaking Tolstoy's metaphor.

Could it be accidental that the sardonic discussion of the numerological reduction of Napoleon's French title to the cabalistic value 666 (and Pierre's contortions to do the same with his moniker) appears on pages 665 and 666 of this edition?

The use of all the French seems to be a necessary obstacle; the effort to plough through beaucoup de mots français, might, in Tolstoy's Christian ethic, reflect Hopkins's injunction: "Sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine." Tolstoy apparently wanted the French, even if it occludes, as an essential element to his prose. Knowing who speaks French, and when, enhances one's knowledge of a character's rank in society, his or her's inclinations, and reveals much nuance of the dialog. P&V present all of the odd variations of a Russion/French mix: Russians trying to speak French (i.e. incompetently, or ironically), French trying to blunder through Russion; even Denisov's speech impediment is carried over in his occasional mutterings in "Fghrench." Being thorough about the French is also justified in the dramatic structure: When Pierre is captured, at the end of the devastation of Moscow, his humanity reaches out to his captors in French - captors who at their core are painted with sympathy. But, with the sudden scene switch to the comforts of soiree life in St. Petersburg, in a jarring apposition to the privations of Moscow, the casual French dialogue seems especially damning of the frivolity and shallowness of social creatures impervious to Moscow's sacrifice.

Having read both the Dunnigan and the Garnett translations concurrently while reading this one (for months!), I can't imagine not owning and re-reading P&V's definitive edition. Ideally, one can read Dunnigan's easy prose style in Signet's inexpensive book (with the teeny-tiny print), while enjoying the manifold literary dimensions of this breathtaking translation. БРАВО to Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky!

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

More Furtive Gestures

Thanks to all for helping Walking the dog Theatre to "spread its paws" in so many new ways.

Friday, July 18, 2008

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