Leonard Bernstein
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Review: A Tribute to Leonard Bernstein and More | Voices of Change | Caruth Auditorium

Before Lenny, and After

Voices of Change opens its season with a Bernstein tribute, and a lot more.

published Thursday, November 1, 2018

Photo: GianAngelo Pistoia
Leonard Bernstein

DallasVoices of Change, a music ensemble dedicated to the performance of the music of our time, continues to present music that you will not hear anywhere else.  Their recent program bears this out. It was presented as a tribute to Leonard Bernstein and thus contained some of his music, but it was selections that are rarely heard. They also played a work by the unjustly ignored composer, Erno Dohányi. Then, they played works by two living composers separated by a couple of generations. George Crumb was born in 1929 and Ellen Ruth Harrison was born in 1956.

Before we get to the review of the concert, it is important to mention that it was presented in memory of William Barstow. He was a beloved arts patron and arts activist who died from complications from Parkinson’s Disease. He served on the board of VOC and supported other organizations as well with both his donations and his time. Concertgoers may know his wife of 31 years, Laurie Shulman, from her excellent and insightful program notes for many organizations, including VOC. Shulman also wrote the book on the Meyerson Symphony Center, tracing it from dream to reality. He was a good friend of mine and he will be sorely missed. Bon voyage, Bill.

The program opened with music of Bernstein: Two Love Songs on texts by Rainer Maria Rilke. These are more modernistic than some of his other output. They were sung by mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy with Shield-Collins Bray at the piano.  This is the year of the composer/conductor/educator’s 100th birthday and tribute concerts are taking place all over the world. These selections were followed by Bernstein’s Piccola Serenata and the “Lamentation” aria that closes the three-movement work, “Jeremiah,” which is really his first symphony.

Dupuy continues to amaze. Her voice, a dark and well focused mezzo-soprano, is not only uniquely beautiful, but has the flexibility to sing any repertoire, from pop songs to the most complex music, with élan. Her performance on this program underlines those abilities. Two Love Songs were delivered with seriousness that expressed the melancholy text in a poignant manner. She completely changed gears for the very brief and much lighter Piccola Serenata, written as a tribute for the conductor, Karl Böhm. Although the pseudo-Hasidic text is nonsense, Dupuy made it sound like real words. If the invented words had been included in the program, more in the audience would have been in on the joke. 

Later in the program, she changed gears again as she launched into the very dark “Lamentation.”  Her performance of Jeremiah’s grief about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was raw with emotion. Since this was written for orchestra, Hannah Cruse did a terrific job of playing an acceptable reduction of Bernstein’s complex score.

Erno Dohányi’s Serenade for String Trio, inserted before Bernstein’s “Lamentation,” is a beautiful work that was given a sensitive and passionate performance by violinist and VOC Artistic Director Maria Schleuning, violist Barbara Sudweeks, and cellist Karl Kettering. It is a mystery why Dohányi’s Serenade doesn’t get more attention. Written in 1902, this work firmly established the composer’s own take on romanticism. He gives his music uniqueness by including Hungarian folk elements and modal scales. Once you hear it, you will recognize his future works

This was a time of experimentation as composers tried to get themselves out of the corner of complexity that they found themselves painted into by composers like Richard Wagner and later by Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Later, in 1912, Arnold Schoenberg would give up trying. Instead, he upset the whole applecart when he wrote Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21, of 1912 on his way to tossing out any remaining shred of tonality all together by creating the 12-tone system.  This led to the wild experimentation that resulted in George Crumb’s bizarre piece. Eventually, composers like Bernstein slowly crept back to Dohányi’s new take on traditional harmonies and forms.

The serenade is cast in five relatively short movements and clocks in at slightly more than 20 minutes.

In the he first movement, Marcia: Allegro, the players brought out the Hungarian cross rhythms. In the second, Romanza: Adagio non troppo, starts off with a viola solo, beautifully played by Sudsweeks, accompanied by pizzicato chords. Then Schleuning took over, matching Sudweeks’ model, who then added the harmony with aggressive broke chords. The three brought the movement to a peaceful ending.

The third movement, Scherzo: Vivace, is a fast fugato that is comprised of a series of  short fugues that alternate with unison statements of the subject.  The three played this off-the-string romp with virtuosity. They offered a great contrast in the slow trio section, bringing out the lush harmonies played in chorale fashion.  The best part of the performance was the way they brought in remnants of the insistent fugue that keeps trying to horn in. Finally, Dohányi surrenders and pairs both the trio theme and the fugue. The three players carried this duality off with clarity and a touch of humor. They ended the scherzo with bravura.

The fourth movement is marked Tema con variazioni: Andante con moto.  The players started the movement with more andante and less moto than in other performances, but they did a fine job of playing the variations in a manner that the theme was always recognizable. The piece ends with a vivacious Rondo, marked Allegro vivace. The three players took the composer at his word and brought the performance to a fast and rollicking close. 

Ellen Harrison’s Echo of One is written for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, which is the same instrumentation as Oliver Messiaen’s seminal Quartuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). His choice of instrumentation was created by necessity. He was in a Nazi prisoner of war camp when he wrote it and these three musicians were what was available. Messiaen himself played the piano part on a less than ideal instrument. Harrison wrote other works for the same group of instruments. Harrison’s 10-minute and puzzling work received a sympathetic performance.

Violinist Schleuning and cellist Kari Kettering were joined by clarinetist Paul Garner and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya. The artists made a good case for the work.  Formally, it depends on what Harrison calls “traces” from an earlier work. In fact, in her writings, she often talks about traces of her earlier works that appear in her later compositions as well as traces of music of other composers that came before her. The piece was hard to follow as it wound around itself. It might have been useful to play the earlier piece from which she drew her traces before we heard this piece.

If Harrison’s work was puzzling, George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children was purposely bewildering. It was written in 1970 at the height of the molto-bizarro avant-garde. This was an era of creating “new sounds” and Crumb certainly does that. More about that later. Where Crumb actually used a real text, it was drawn from the work of Federico García Lorca.

This piece is scored for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, an amplified grand piano (well as a child’s toy piano), and an original collection of percussion instruments such as prayer stones, Japanese temple bells and even a musical saw. Other vocal effects are assigned to performers. They are required to speak, even yell, and whisper. Members of Syzygy, SMU’s Meadows Contemporary Music Ensemble, did the honors. Director Lane Harder conducted.

Mezzo-soprano Lauren Davis was astounding singing the very strange soprano part. Frequently, she sang with her head in the harp of the amplified grand piano with the sustaining pedal held down. It created a supernatural otherworldly echo. It made diction difficult, but it didn’t matter because she was singing nonword syllables like a fantastical Vocalise. How she got the obtuse pitches out of such thin air was a mystery. At the end of the performance, treble Zach Lysinger did a fine job of matching her ghostly echo. Tom Demer played the requested out-of-tune twangy mandolin. Oboist Audry Yu and harpist Zane Mallet joined percussionists Katelyn Kerstetter, Hannah Hughes and Jacob Hord to compete the instrumentation.

This was a remarkably virtuosic performance. Without a score, it is impossible to determine accuracy, but we can assume that it was point-on throughout. The score itself uses some of Crumb’s invented notation and is as much artwork as it is written music.  It was fun to hear it and to appreciate how well it obtains its goals of “New Sounds.”

Let me get on my usual soapbox: The problem with works like this is that concert audiences hated them once the novelty wore off. Also, composers strived to one-up each other, a competition that was won by John Cage who wrote a silent piece, called 4’33”, in which a performer sits at a piano for that amount of time without making a sound. An excerpt from the score is here, compete with its laugh-out-loud dynamics. He topped himself with his "Piano Falling Down Five Flights of Stairs in A Minor," which is, in performance, exactly what the title suggests. Here, is a photo of an actual performance.

Perhaps composers needed to go crazy to throw off the straightjackets of “do it this way or be gone” since its inception as chant and troubadour’s ballads. No, the problem was that composers became what they revolted against: Style Hall Monitors. Anyone who wanted to write any other way were ostracized and discouraged by the elite. Mostly, they were all university professors who didn’t need to sell their music or collect royalties to earn a living.  Fortunately, this era finally exhausted itself. Now, composers can write anyway they wish and be accepted if their work is good. If they want to, they can even write music comparable to Crumb or Cage. Thanks For Reading

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Before Lenny, and After
Voices of Change opens its season with a Bernstein tribute, and a lot more.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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