24 October 2010

Hearing and Re-Hearing: Bolcom, Beethoven, Bernstein

“Swimming Aria”: Joyce Castle at the Morgan Library.
October 20, 2010

It’s not every day that a friend celebrates her 40th season in opera, nor every day that she sings the world premiere of a song cycle written especially for her. So yesterday, I went a second time to hear Joyce Castle perform The Hawthorn Tree, seven poems set to music by William Bolcom, at the Brooklyn Museum. Joyce had performed the cycle on Friday evening, as well, and by yesterday afternoon her interpretation was all the more assured. A second hearing afforded me the chance to pay closer attention to Bolcom’s composition, too, with its varied means and pleasing ends; and on both Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon, I thoroughly enjoyed the second part of the concert program, Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Opus 20, played by members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.

Contemporary music is so far afield from the classics that formed the basis of my early musical education, that a second hearing (or more!) is almost always necessary for me to begin to understand the structure of a piece. Unless the composition is willfully inaccessible (as Bolcom’s work never is), I can usually understand the character and the colors on first hearing, and I can feel the impact — but I don’t feel I’ve begun to know what I’ve heard. Even the Beethoven Septet, a youthful work that shows the influence of a prior generation of composers and that is, for that reason, all the more comprehensible, rewards a second hearing. Thus I’m eager to hear again the third major work I heard in recent days, Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, at New York City Opera.

Naturally, Joyce Castle knew Leonard Bernstein and has sung much of his work, including the world premieres of Arias and Barcarolles and Songfest.

First to the Bolcom. Recognizing that each poem he set was written by a different woman on very different subjects, and reveling in the versatility of his interpreter, Bolcom deploys a number of styles and evokes many moods. I could hear the influence of Darius Milhaud, with whom Bolcom studied, in several songs, and I marveled at the way he picks up little melodies so briefly before moving on to another — though any other composer might have built an entire cycle on a single one of these.

Louise Bogan’s “The Dream” builds on a churning piano background, while Joyce speaks most of the text, breaking into song only in the last stanza. Sarah Arvio’s “Chagrin” is entirely conversational (and not unlike Joyce’s own conversation) as the text starts and stops and follows its tangents, in a musical style that recalls Bolcom’s rightly celebrated cabaret songs. Christina Rossetti’s “Echo” and Willa Cather’s “The Hawthorn Tree” are especially lyrical, the Cather eliciting an almost stately tenderness from Bolcom’s pen. You can hear the Midwestern skies in the openness of the music, with birdlike notes from the flute. Stevie Smith’s “Love me!” is as anguished as Anne Carson’s “Swimming Aria” is (ultimately) serene, and Joyce really did seem to be gliding gently into some great water, exhorting us, too, to “Swim!” and drawing that word out until it ended in a sustained hum.

Joyce in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw,
directed by Sam Helfrich, Boston, 2010

The cycle is going to be catnip for other mezzos who want to showcase their range, but Joyce got there first, of course, and she was in fantastic form. Her lower register especially impressed me on Saturday — gutsy, they are, and as clean and pure as the high notes that claimed my attention on Wednesday. Her diction is simply perfect; as Bolcom warned us on opening night, we really didn’t need to refer to the printed texts in the program, because every word came across, not only intelligibly but with its correct value and mood. Through it all, she sang naturally and without any evident effort, very much a part of the instrumental ensemble even as she was its centerpiece.

Watching many of the same instrumentalists (along with a few others) in the septet, I was delighted again by Beethoven’s work. He’s out to make friends here, with only some of the passion and none of the pain that I hear in so much of his later work. He stirs up a continuous stream of rippling and eddying melodies, with burbling winds (including a distinctive contribution from the French horn) and glistening strings. The St. Luke’s players toss and catch these lines and loft them easily: it’s a game among colleagues, and as ever, I love watching the musicians collaborate and cue each other. Krista Bennion Feeney’s violin and Romie de Guise-Langlois’ clarinet were most impressive (but that may be because they were seated where I could watch them best).

A Quiet Place, world premiere, Houston, 1983

Bernstein’s A Quiet Place has never been performed in New York, and very seldom anywhere else. An extension of his one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, it’s a strange, fascinating work, and it’s receiving its local premiere from New York City Opera, and I attended the final dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon. I’ll bust if I don’t hear it again.

Apart from “What a movie!” — an aria that’s frequently sung in recital — I haven’t heard much of Trouble in Tahiti since PBS presented it in my boyhood. Barely conscious of opera, and only slightly familiar with a few of the songs from West Side Story, I can’t have absorbed much of what is effectively a Cheever short story set to music, albeit with greater humor and a delicious jazz vocal trio that stands apart from Sam and Dinah, a suburban husband and wife struggling to hold onto their love.

The Trio, Trouble in Tahiti, 1952

A Quiet Place, written a generation later to a libretto by Stephen Wadworth, picks up at Dinah’s funeral, and Sam wonders what went wrong. Trouble thus becomes a series of flashbacks, in Act II. Meanwhile, Sam and Dinah’s son, Junior, is gay and mentally ill; his ex-lover, François, has married Dede, Junior’s sister. Cue Dr. Freud: Wadsworth’s libretto is heavy heavy heavy on tortured psychology, and of all the characters old and new, only Dinah is even remotely sympathetic. (Several others are downright unpleasant.)

Bernstein responds with jagged, hard-edged music that somehow chimes with the melodic Trouble score even as it steers an entirely different course. Under conductor Jayce Ogren, every note is played with the curious transparency I find in almost all Bernstein’s music: it’s as if I am looking through a plate-glass window at a broad landscape I can see but can’t reach.

Christopher Alden’s staging sometimes lays this on a bit thick, but he does so where Bernstein and Wadsworth do, and in like fashion; his greatest contribution to the production is absolutely brilliant, casting Junior, Dede, and François as the jazz vocalists.

Dinah and Sam, Trouble in Tahiti, 1952

It’s bad form to review a dress rehearsal, but I don’t think anyone at City Opera will mind my pointing out that the cast is wonderful. I particularly enjoyed Patricia Risley and Christopher Feigum as Dinah and Young Sam; both singers are making their City Opera debuts.

Whether A Quiet Place is an unjustly neglected masterpiece, I’m not certain, but it’s compelling beyond compare, the final theater work by one of America’s greatest talents, and it deserves a thorough hearing. I do intend to go back.

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