Wednesday, February 9, 2011 which Taminophile does not write about bel canto opera

Your intrepid reporter has written before about how he is suspect of any music composed after the death of dear Mr. Donizetti, and yet he found himself at a new music concert on Sunday afternoon. Clearly the stars were out of line and something had to be done about it!

The concert was part of the Prism Project, presented by the PRISM Chamber Orchestra. It featured Lindsey Goodman, a highly accomplished flutist, and Robert Frankenberry, an excellent pianist. (Neither has a dedicated web site, but links to both abound online in reviews and program information.) The program was all music for flute and piano, and in some cases, voice. Mezzo Eva Rainforth was also on the program, singing a song cycle by my dear friend Jeffrey Nytch.

My frequent statements such as the first sentence above make Jeff Nytch want to turn me over his knee and spank me--so I'll keep making those statements. But I did owe it to him to come and give a listen. I will be the first to admit I am not qualified to write about this music. I'm so behind the times, I often forget and think that composers of this century include dear Mr. Puccini (d. 1924) and Herr R. Strauss (d. 1949). This concert was nearly all music composed in this century--the oldest piece was written in 1980. I shall plod on, however, and write a few thoughts that will quickly reveal my ignorance. I regret that I can't cover every piece on the program.

Vicious Circles, by Eli Tamar (b. 1964), at first sounded like "Flight of the Bumblebee" on acid. Or maybe deconstructed. The program notes referred to a passage from the first chapter of Ecclesiastes beginning "What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever...." Circles in our circles.... The circles were quite evident musically with melodic figures reminiscent of Rossini ornamental turns, treated at times furiously, at times in a languid manner, always returning for more abuse further variation. Circles.

First Lines by Amy Williams (b. 1969) is a series of miniatures for piano and flute inspired by the first lines of a number of poems. Six of these miniatures were scattered between larger works throughout the program, and by and large all seemed to successfully evoke musically the ideas in the first lines.* "XI. I was surprised by/how calm the waters were...." (Olga Sedakova) did indeed inspire mental images of a calm lake in the summer with its melodic shapes. "III. the air hums at night/the wings of bees/beg for entrance to my ears...." (Toi Derricotte) brought us more bees, but not in a "Flight of the Bumblebee" sense--rather in a lazy summer day sense. "VIII. Gestures made against snow:/The fling/And scatter of birdseed onto burned grass..." (Patricia Goedicke) brought us meldic flinging gestures. In "VI. Shhh, my grandmother is sleeping..." (Marilyn Chin) Ms. Goodman simulated the sound of a respirator on the flute while the accompanying piano part sounded appropriately suspenseful, like TV movie music. The respirator paused for a moment, at which point the entire audience stopped breathing as well, but resumed, only to fade out at the end.

A particular audience favorite was Chrysalis, meditations on transformation by Gilda Lyons (b. 1975). In the program notes Ms. Lyons describes the piece, commissioned by the performing duo, as "a directed improvisation for solo instrumentalist, solo vocalist, or ensemble" In addition to using their instruments in both traditional and "new-music" ways, the performers also used their voices and bodies as instruments. Of particular interest were the moments when one or both played or sang into the body of the grand piano to take advantage of its resonating properties. (It was at this point, as the lovely Ms. Goodman walked back and forth in front of the piano a few times, that one became aware of her fabulous shoes. One has one's priorities.)

Last on the program was Mr. Nytch's (b. 1964--sorry Jeff, but I had to include it) song cycle From the Soul of Silence, lovingly performed by Ms. Goodman, Mr. Frankenberry, and mezzo Eva Rainforth. I failed to make any notes about this piece, which suggests I was completely drawn in. The songs are settings of poems by Bengali mystic and poet Rabindranath Tagore. I don't know whether these poems originated as part of a single larger work, but they seem to make a very complete and unified set. They talk of a traveler's journey--and sometimes struggle--in his relationship with his God. Again, I can't always talk intelligently about newer music, but I will say that I myself want to sing these songs some day. Vocally they had a lyric sweep and an apparent "singability" that I admired. As we were headed home, I asked my dear hubby, who has practically no musical education, what he'd thought of the concert. Among other things, he said he thought this song cycle had the most polished sound of any of the works on the program. I would quite like to hear this set again to evaluate it further.

For those of you who were concerned, I have liberally doused my ears with Mozart and Donizetti in the days since the concert, and I shall be back to normal in no time at all.

*The complete poems from which these first lines were quoted were not printed in the program, and I'm a lazy scholar, so I make no apologies if my impressions are in contrast to the poems as a whole.

1 comment:

Lucy said...

As the wonderful Katherine Hepburn says in Lion in Winter, there'll be pork in the treetops come morning! In all seriousness, though, thanks for reporting in such evocative detail on what sounds like a fascinating evening. The impressionistic First Lines strikes me as an especially interesting idea.

I also count Puccini and R. Strauss as twentieth-century composers. :) There's a really great article in the liner notes for the Pappano-led Trittico about Puccini as a composer on the cutting edge of modernity.

(In a self-serving parenthesis, I thought I'd note that my own blog is still operational, it's just also correctly spelled - operaobsession instead of operaobession. Such is the comeuppance of the self-proclaimed grammar nerd.)