02 March 2013

The Auteur Theory of Concert Programming

Heirs of Tantalus: Actors, instrumentalists,
and vocalists delve into ancient drama.
Judith Hawking (in black), Jessica Gould (in red), José Lemos (in shadow),
Steven Rattazzi (against column at right).
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

By happy circumstance, my return to the New York Festival of Song (February 19) preceded by only a few days my return to Salon/Sanctuary Concerts (February 22), and in the afterglow of two fine performances, certain ideas I’d entertained began to coalesce. Call it the Auteur Theory of Recital Programming: that constructing a program is an art in itself. In selecting and ordering the material, the programmer becomes an interpreter, a creative artist, constructing fresh song cycles out of diverse repertory, lending the music meaning beyond its isolated contexts. Of such artists, there are few better examples than those of pianist Steven Blier, who pioneered this approach, and soprano Jessica Gould, who ably represents the next generation.

I’ve been kicking this theory around for a while, as I say, and I want to return to it, but first a few observations on the SSC concert, “The Heirs of Tantalus,” which persuasively linked the history of the Roman Emperor Nero and his mother, Agrippina, to the legend of Orestes and Clytemnestra, through the music of three (or, more precisely, four) Baroque composers, one Roman historian, and two Greek tragedians. With Jory Vinikour on harpsichord and members of the Sebastians Chamber Orchestra lending accompaniment, Gould and countertenor José Lemos led us through a story as lurid as the music is gorgeous. Darting among the Doric columns of the Broad Street Ballroom, three actors recited passages from Suetonius, Aeschylus, and Euripides, under the direction of Erica Gould, Jessica’s sister.

I Dismember Mama?
Gould and Lemos as Agrippina and Nero.
In background, Jory Vinikour on harpsichord.
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

To the best of my recollection, this was the first time I’d heard either singer, and both in solos and duets, they proved delightful. There’s a distinct nap to the plush velvet of Gould’s soprano. Its texture is soft, caressing, and beautifully matched to the similar qualities of Lemos’ voice, which moves seamlessly from soprano to “man voice” (as a certain Polish contralto might call it) and back again. While most of the selections on the program were solo arias (and most of those drawn from Handel’s opera Agrippina), in the duets “Pur ti miro” from L’Incoronazione di Poppea (not actually from the pen of Monteverdi) and “Ahi, nelle sorte umani,” a chamber duet by Handel, Gould and Lemos blended so exquisitely that one really wished the old boy had written even more such numbers.

As actors, Gould and Lemos had a high time incarnating the sheer nastiness (and some nobler qualities, too) of the characters, and they were abetted by actors Steven Rattazzi, expertly handling the passages from Suetonius; and Judith Hawking, an aptly regal Clytemnestra. (Even her hairstyle was just right.) Ben Leasure’s rather contemporary reading of Orestes proved intriguing but ultimately too callow for that tormented protagonist. Jessica Gould’s sister, Erica, collaborated on the concept, constructed the script, and staged the performance, making excellent use of the space as she moved the actors around the ballroom; dramatic spotlighting kept the audience’s focus where she wanted it. “All too late is it now to unweave what has been woven,” the actors repeated, heightening the sense of ritual.

Vinikour (at harpsichord) and members of
the Sebastians Chamber Orchestra.
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

The headliner of my previous SSC concert was Anthony Roth Costanzo, a singer whose work I know a bit and one who has pursued other multi-disciplinary programs in the past. Thus Friday night delivered my first taste of the SSC Aesthetic with the Pure Gould Effect, as it were. Since appropriate venues are central to the SSC philosophy, let’s start with the Ballroom, not only appropriate but evocative, with good acoustics further recommending the space for future concerts.

In terms of programming, the interdisciplinary approach meant that the “Tantalus” concert never resembled a lecture with musical examples — as it easily might have done. Moreover, everyone involved revealed a clear confidence in the strength of the material: songs complemented readings, and vice-versa. The result was a pleasingly mathematical elegance in a swift-moving performance, without overstatement or extraneity. We got exactly what we needed, no more and no less, in order to understand and to admire.

Harpsichordist Bradley Brookshire, dancer Jared Angle,
and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo
at the Players Club last year.
Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy Salon/Sanctuary Concerts.

In a broader context, I can sense, as I say, a still-growing freedom among concert artists and programmers in the U.S. Just as Steven Blier makes a statement by bringing in music of any period or style, so Jessica Gould makes a statement by incorporating history and theater, so ARC-en-Ciel incorporates dance, and so David Adam Moore incorporates videography. Singers like Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham may program recitals that encourage us to focus on particular themes: how Baroque composers treated “Drama Queens” or how male composers have depicted women as “Virgins, Vixens, & Viragos.” And so on.

Sure, thematic programming isn’t a brand-new thing, and I can even think of examples that pre-date Steven Blier, pioneer though he truly is. More conventional programming may still yield enormous rewards, too. (At Carnegie Hall several years ago, Ewa Podles´ sang one of the most memorable concerts I ever heard, organized around no more precise theme than that every aria was written by Handel, and that she could sing the bejeezus out of them all.) But when I compare my concert-going experiences today with those of my youth, I find greater excitement and anticipation now. I can be confident that several parts of my mind will be stimulated and satisfied — but beyond that, I don’t really know what to expect. The sky is the limit, and it’s a great moment in history to be an audience.

This may not be news to the people who actually program concerts, but for me “The Heirs of Tantalus” was the final piece in the mosaic — and given the theme of the evening, that strikes me as just right.

Brel à la NYFOS: Steven Blier at the piano,
mezzo Marie Lenormand, tenor Philippe Pierce,
and accordionist Bill Schimmel.
Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy New York Festival of Song.

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