music makers: FLUX Quartet.
College, Aug. 21
The Bard Music Festival portion of the Summerscape program
(Berg and His World) ran for two intensive weekends (Aug.
13-22) and this year featured the music of everybody’s favorite
inaccessible composer, Alban Berg. But here’s where the “
. . . and His World” part came into skillful play. We heard
music of such Berg contemporaries as de Falla, Korngold and
Gershwin, so hummable tunes cropped up from time to time.
More than that, each concert has an accompanying talk that
helps contextualize the music. I attended the Saturday events
during the second weekend, and thus missed any lecture that
might have helped with the business of listening to atonal
stuff, but I’ve been a Berg fan since I discovered his opera
Wozzeck as a moody and disenfranchised teen, when murderous
rages and possible self-destruction seemed entirely reasonable
possibilities, and the clangier the soundtrack the better.
The big piece on the second Saturday’s program was Franz Schmidt’s
unbelievably overwrought oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln
(The Book of the Seven Seals), a work rarely performed
ostensibly because of the composer’s possible Nazi-regime
connections, but more probably evading the limelight because
it slams you over the head with a passion that’s mostly artifice,
the musical version of a painting by Thomas Kinkade.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t enjoyable. Surrender yourself
to its relentless hugeness and you’ve got a non-stop mix of
mysticism and terror. The text is drawn from the Book of Revelations,
in which wingnuts have wallowed for centuries, so we have
imagery of horses and fire and childbirth and end-of-time
judgment flung across soloists and chorus and orchestra.
Schmidt showed some masterly techniques of tone painting,
using brass and winds with a surprisingly restrained and effective
hand from time to time, but he couldn’t resist for very long
throwing in the kitchen sink when the text so moved him.
Tenor Thomas Cooley gave a fantastic performance as the narrator,
working for most of the piece’s hour and 45 minutes. Given
the text, he could come across as something of a scold, but
Cooley shaded the part deftly, and paid out a surprising reserve
of passion at the climax. There’s less work for the solo vocal
quartet, but soprano Christiane Libor, mezzo Fredrika Brillembourg,
tenor James Taylor and bass-baritone Robert Pomakov dug in
with sincere gusto, the only way to make a piece like this
The Bard Festival Chorale were divided by gender across the
front of the stage and got out of sync in a couple of heavy-going
places, but otherwise they and the American Symphony Orchestra
turned in excellent performances. Overwrought it may have
been, but I was glad to experience the piece.
Libor opened the program singing Berg’s Der Wein, a
brief setting of Baudelaire. Atonal and crunchy, it still
displays the lyricism Berg somehow still managed to sneak
into his music.
We met tenor Taylor earlier in the day in Hanns Eisler’s Tagebuch,
part of a program titled “Composers Select: New Music in the
1920s.” Eisler collaborated with Brecht during that decade
and beyond, but fled Germany as the Nazis ascended—only to
find his refuge in the U.S. shattered by the blacklisting
witch hunts that led to his deportation in 1948. His music
is underappreciated, and the Tagebuch (Day Book,
or diary) is a whimsical piece for female trio, tenor, violin
and piano sardonically showing the influence of American popular
Violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen were
joined by clarinetist Laura Flax for the adagio from Berg’s
Kammerkonzert, trio-arranged by the composer and a
lovely way to kick off the program.
The stars of the show undoubtedly were the members of the
FLUX Quartet, who played Ernst Toch’s String Quartet No.
11 and Alois Hába’s Quartet No. 2, the latter employing
quarter tones in a way that seemed more mischievous than ardent,
pulling tonal centers here and there throughout the piece
while still achieving a satisfying dramatic structure.
I’ve listened to Manuel de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto
repeatedly over the past few decades, always thinking I’ll
enjoy it more the next time. And it always comes off sounding
as if the composer too deliberately squelched his natural
voice. But soloist Paolo Bordignon put the instrument through
its paces—it’s almost all fast arpeggios—and the accompanying
chamber ensemble was terrific.
Can’t Be Serious! Viennese Operetta and Popular Music” was
the title of the 10 AM lecture-demonstration. University of
Leeds professor Derek B. Scott was charming and engaging and
knew his stuff, taking us along a path of song by Offenbach,
Strauss, Lehár and Gilbert and Sullivan, among others.
Tenor William Ferguson gave an effortless performance of Offenbach’s
tongue-twisting Je suis Brésilien, mezzo Hai-Ting Chinn
made Pinafore’s Buttercup much sexier than I thought
possible, and soprano Camille Zamora, baritone Thomas Meglioranza
and pianist James Bassi rounded out the splendid ensemble.
Relentlessly frothy, filled with solos, duets, ensembles and
patter songs, it was a great start to the day.