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In the Spirit

by B.A. Nilsson on March 16, 2011

Close Encounters With Music

Auspicious: Jennifer Rivera


Jennifer Rivera, mezzo-soprano, Yehuda Hanani, cellist, Walter Ponce, pianist

Close Encounters with Music, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, Mass., March 12


At the center of a program titled Thus Spake German Romanticism was a new work by a Cuban-born composer who was inspired by Buddhist teachings, so it made sense, somehow, to open with a song by Schubert. Actually, it made a lot of sense, because artistic director Yehuda Hanani’s comments at the start of the concert put it all in a context that noted the fascination with Orientalism that such poets as Goethe and Heine shared.

“Music . . . presents to us a little spiritual lesson,” writes Jorge Martín, “an opportunity to stay in the moment.” Martin is the first composer-in-residence to be appointed by Close Encounters with Music, a Berkshires-based series that is in its 19th season.

His cello sonata, titled Four Noble Truths, took a four-movement journey through a sound texture that skillfully explored what cello and piano have to offer—and it was, at heart, a very Romantic-era piece without sacrificing the vocabulary that’s been developed since then.

The opening allegro began with a declamatory passage that launched a four-note motif over a persistent rhythmic pattern, sounding at times reminiscent of the work of 20th-century composer Joaquín Turina, who was born in Spain but studied in France during the height of impressionism. But Martín’s writing also has a plaintive quality I think of as distinctly American, which came through in the second movement, an adagio that relied on the cello’s lowest note, the open C string, to reinforce an ominous-sounding (and often percussive) mood.

We expect a scherzo in a classical four-movement sonata, and this movement contrasted a fast-paced, often lyrical opening with a lush, arpeggiated middle before coming to a quick halt. What followed was an unexpected largo, a slow movement that opened with a long, lush cello solo that eased into Debussy-ville when the piano entered with flourishes (and hand crossings). The movement built in intensity to a dramatic and very satisfying finish.

Hanani was the cellist in this and the sonata by Richard Strauss that followed, a pairing that underscored how very young the composer was when writing in. It, too, opens in a declamatory fashion, but its three movements are very beholden to Brahms with touches of Mendelssohnian whimsy.

It’s a charming, even endearing work that deserves to be dusted off now and then, but I’ll confess that I’d rather spend more time with the Martín sonata, a work that I suspect harbors more mysteries to reveal on subsequent hearings.

Pianist Walter Ponce was a superb partner for Hanani in the works; both make the technical challenges effortless, and Hanani’s is a clear, warm, singing tone.

Which brings us back to Schubert, and the cycle of songs that opened the show. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera made a very auspicious series debut, triumphing in all the challenges these deceptively simple-seeming songs provide. Schubert’s “Suleika,” to a Goethe text, develops melodically throughout its six stanzas, and Rivera colored each of them appropriately, not overdoing the big moments and easing the finish into a very effective contrast.

She sings in a full, rich tone that still has room for all the consonants, which a song like Schumann’s “Lotus Blossom” required (try glossing over a line like “Und ihm entschleiert sie freundlich”!)

Two songs by Hugo Wolf gave us the poet (Goethe again) in moods tender (“Phänomen”) and lusty (“Creation and Animation”), the latter accompanying the birth of Adam with a foundry-like figure. Mendelssohn’s familiar “On Wings of Song” brought the set to an affecting close. Again, Ponce proved an effective accompanist—and here’s hoping we hear more from Rivera in the future.