Dallas — Every time you think you have Voices of Change figured out, they put on a concert that is a complete surprise. Such was the case on January 18 at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium.
VOC, one of the most important performing organizations of the music of our time, reached back to the dawn of the 20th century, contrasting composers who reinvented the older style in a fresh new way. There wasn’t an experimental work to be found anywhere. It was a nice change and the audience gave the concert an enthusiastic ovation.
The concert started out in a festival mode with a short trumpet fanfare by Benjamin Britten written for the town of St. Edmondsbury on the occasion of a pageant about the Magna Carta. Ryan Anthony, principal trumpet in the Dallas Symphony, is always impressive and he was here as well. The other two trumpeters were not identified in the program, but all three did a blazing job with all the tum-ta-rahs. It is too bad that this piece wasn’t set up in such a way to maximize it antiphonal character. All three were on stage and, although they stood evenly distributed, having them in three places in the audience (or even up in the organ loft) would have worked much better.
Britten’s Phantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings also received an excellent performance by the VOC forces. The DSO’s principal oboist, Erin Hannigan, is one of the best in the country and it is always a pleasure to hear her play. Thanks to her, violinist Maria Schleuning, violist Barbara Sudweeks and cellist Kari Kettering, this odd work received excellent treatment.
It is an early work (he was 19) but the hallmarks of this musical language can already be detected. It’s in one movement but has a three-part form. A long soaring melody in the oboe is framed by a strange, almost surrealistic march.
The players caught these elements and melded them together, giving the piece more unity than is usually heard. They started out giving the march a weary and worn-out feeling, even though the dotted rhythm was crisp. They built it to a fearsome climax, using all down bows for emphasis, and then let it fade away. It was as if some marching band had passed in front of us: hearing it approaching in the distance, louder as it neared, and fading as it continued on its martial way.
Hannigan offered a complete contrast. Her remarkable control allowed Britten’s long-spinning melody to float over everything and her breath control let it soar almost completely uninterrupted.
It is probably misleading to call Britten a conservative composer. His use of tonality was completely original although his influences started with Brahms, whose music he later came to despise. His musical language seemed to grow up as the century did. The composers that influenced him were the landmarks of the 20th century: Debussy, Ravel, early Stravinsky, Berg and Mahler. He also turned to the British Baroque composer Henry Purcell for inspiration, especially on the setting of the English Language.
Mark Adamo is a young neo-romantic composer with a gift for the dramatic. He is best known as an opera composer, so a set of songs is narrative as well. The Racer’s Widow is a cycle of five poems, each by a different poet, that Adamo assembled into a grouping to tell a story of the title character. She comes from the fourth song and narrates the circumstances of her husband’s car crash and its disastrous results. The other songs gather around this one to comment.
Mezzo-soprano Virginia Dupuy is a magnificent singer who specializes in contemporary music. She is also excellent in portraying the drama of a song without a lot of histrionics. Her interpretations are subtle, and she connects immediately with the audience. She also possesses a beautiful, creamy voice that is unique and can be easily recognized after only a few notes.
In her able hands, and with Adamo’s sure dramatic sense, the scattered texts came together into the narrative the composer intended. Reading them on the page, you never would have suspected that this would happen. Jeff Hood contributed some excellent cello playing and the always-reliable Shields-Collins Bray was a marvel at the piano.
Overall, these songs were not as successful for me as some of Adamo’s other works. They received an exceptional performance but the songs sounded more as if they were randomly assembled into the cycle. Maybe another hearing will dispel this impression.
The program ended with a late romantic monster of a quintet by Ernest Bloch. Shu Lin was the added violinist and Liudmila Georgievskaya took on the incredibly difficult piano part.
Written in 1923, it is saturated with the influence of similar pre-20th century, highly Romantic pieces by Sergei Taneyev and a very young Ernő Dohnányi. There are lots of notes and many thrilling crescendos, which extend to enormous climaxes. In fact, there were way too many of these moments, which lasted way too long. The ending was especially drawn out, threatening to end a number of times before it finally did.
Bloch was an important 20th century composer and the creator of some magnificent and influential masterpieces. For example, his Sacred Service is a wondrous composition. Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque for Cello and Orchestra is a standard in the repertoire. His two Concerto Grosso compositions are pristine examples of neo-classical music in language and form.
The VOC players gave this overstuffed and highly Romantic piece a fine performance, showing great endurance while maintaining musicality. They made a decent case for the piece and it was good to hear it. But the times have changed around Bloch’s piece, in part as a reaction to such works.
Schoenberg’s Perriot Lunaire premiered in 1912 and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913; Bloch’s 1923 quintet shows the strong pull that 19th century romanticism had on the early 20th century composers, which was nearly impossible to escape. It demonstrates why radical change was necessary for composers to pull themselves free from its gravity.