Dallas — The astounding Soundings series at the Nasher Sculpture Center continues to astonish. The April 4 concert presented two outstanding contemporary works: one a rarely heard masterpiece and the other by a relatively unknown composer/performer.
Leoš Janáček’s dark and brooding song cycle, The Diary of One Who Disappeared, is a work that few musicians know about, and fewer of those have ever heard it in a live a performance. The second piece was just as serious, but much more abstract: The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book is a cycle of short descriptive musical experiences, written and performed by the Bosnia-based accordionist Merima Ključo with Soundings Artistic Director Seth Knopp at the piano.
Both works felt long because the complexity of the music and the need to overcome some significant barriers to comprehension—language in the case of The Diary and the abstract nature of the other.
The Diary is a dark and intense work about a young villager who falls in love with a Roma girl, who is pregnant with his child. He leaves his family and home to go off with her. Diary is technically considered to be a song cycle for tenor and piano, assisted by a mezzo and an offstage vocal trio. But it is so dramatic that the work has been staged as a chamber opera. Soundings combined the concert presentation with minimal staging.
Tenor Benjamin Butterfield stood in the traditional recitalist position—the crook of the piano—for the most part. As the personification of the gypsy, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó entered with a slow, erogenous motion that was underlined by her smoky voice. Butterfield left the safety of the piano to interact with her. When they were both present, the two singers communicated with each other vocally, but mostly through their eyes, with an unblinking laserlike stare. Oh, how we wished we could comprehend every incendiary thought they exchanged!
But, we understood what the glances conveyed better than what was said in the poems. Diary was sung in the original Czech and, although translations were furnished, they were printed on multiple pages stapled in the corner. The low light level and the complication of turning the pages all combined to frustrate following along. And who wanted to be looking at pages of type when such a scorching drama was playing out in front of us?
Butterfield did an exceptional job and, in spite of the language barrier, was able to communicate what the composer referred to as “emotional fire.” His rich tenor voice is not of the Italian variety, but more along the Germanic lines. He is perfectly suited to pieces such as this. Pianist Arthur Rowe offered a sturdy underpinning and was as communicative as singer.
We got the big picture and much could be gleaned from Butterfield’s intensity. Yet, we knew that we missed many of the details of this highly nuanced performance. Projected supertitles, ubiquitous in opera houses, needs to make the jump to song recitals that are not sung in the vernacular (although even then subtitles help with questionable diction). It was especially unfortunate that supertitles were missing at this concert, considering that the second half of the program made extensive use of projected images, so the equipment was already in place.
Our troubles following the action were magnified in the second half. With the absence of a communicative singer and plot to follow, The Sarajevo Haggadah had a harder time telling its story, even with the assistance of some projections. The piece itself didn’t help. Its conceptual concept of music, which included non-traditional performance techniques and avant-garde musical experimentation, combined with repetition, made it difficult to keep track of where you were in the saga. This was another missed opportunity because the saga is quite fascinating.
The piece is about a 600-year-old Haggadah, which is one of the world’s great religious treasures. It is a magnificently illustrated manuscript of the traditional text for the Passover Seder. The book was created in 1350, and some wine stains show that it was used for that purpose. The priceless manuscript is the oldest Sephardic Haggadah in existence. It was made in Barcelona and is currently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. How it landed there, as well as the travails of the manuscript and those who protected it through centuries of wars and invasion are the subjects of this musical exploration.
The makeshift stage in the Nasher’s multipurpose room was shared by Knopp at the piano, composer Merima Ključo (with her large extended-bass accordion) and a large video screen made from an actual Seder tablecloth. The vivid video images, mostly based on the manuscript, were created on short notice by Bart Woodstrup.
Musically, the work is a pastiche of original music based on Middle Eastern and Jewish materials, some chant and Kelzmer influence, some folk like elements and many nonmusical effects. The piece begins with large world-weary sighs from the accordion, that Ključo created by only opening and closing the bellows.
Knopp was kept busy both in and on the piano. He strummed the strings and put various items on them to create a wide variety of buzzings and clunks. The keyboard side also got a workout from top to bottom. At some times, he landed on some notes and large clusters with a power that crossed the line into violence. Others were barely audible.
While all of the elements of Merima Ključo’s composition were fascinating and musically intriguing, the piece was too long—even if the extended silences were discounted. Perhaps it felt long because of the combination with the previous piece on the same program. Two extended and esoteric compositions, which are unknown and difficult to follow, no matter how wonderful they are, can tire the concentration abilities of even the most dedicated in the audience.
Still, this concert will long be remembered. Butterfield’s performance was remarkable. Ključo’s experimentation at representing something physical with something as ephemeral as music was also successful. Both performances opened new doors and gave us much to ponder.