Two of Spoleto USA’s signature music series — Intermezzi and Music in Time — finished up this week with classy and memorable events that fully upheld the lofty standards we’ve come to expect from them. Sadly, the events reminded me that this year’s festival is over, leaving us with a mental treasure-trove that (after I’ve recovered from my usual case of “festival fatigue”) will soon have me counting the days until next year’s festival.
Monday’s Intermezzi III event was a very different sort of vocal affair. German composer Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden, a melodrama for piano and speaker on a narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Doing the performance honors were distinguished actor Stephen Brennan of this year’s acclaimed Spoleto run of Daphne du Maurier’s play My Cousin Rachel. At the Steinway was Lydia Brown, a Spoleto veteran who is a highly esteemed modern music specialist. I’ve often marveled at her playing.
Tennyson’s classic narrative poem tells the emotionally charged story of the title character, a happily married fisherman forced by financial problems to take employment as a merchant seaman. Shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island for 10 years, he finally returns home, only to find that his beloved wife, believing him dead, has married his childhood friend and borne his child. Enoch resolves never to disrupt her happiness by telling her that he is alive, and his sacrifice emerges only after his death.
Brennan rendered a vocally powerful and touching reading of the poem, with bits of his native Irish brogue apparent. Brown delivered the carefully crafted piano part expertly, enhancing the poetry’s considerable dramatic and emotional impact throughout. It smacked strongly of “the German Strauss,” with plenty of his hallmark harmonics and stylistic devices. The only problem was that the concert grand piano’s lid was fully raised — and, despite Brennan’s vocal strength, the music’s louder dramatic passages drowned out his words several times. I was driven to look up the poem and read it for myself after I got home. Still, it was quite a worthwhile experience and I’m glad I had my hanky handy to dab a tear or two away.
Tuesday’s final Intermezzi III program was a vocal offering of a more conventional sort, being the series’ traditional recital showcasing singers from the festival’s opera productions performing a mix of arias, art songs, and cherished popular standards. This particular concert’s repertoire, however, was unusual in that it came almost exclusively from living composers. Of the two featured singers, only soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (a Spoleto veteran) had a lead role in one of this year’s operas, namely Facing Goya. Baritone Matthew Burns was apparently brought in just for this Intermezzi appearance. Accomplished pianist Keun-A Lee presided at the Steinway.
The artists took turns performing sets of solo numbers, but emerged together at the end to deliver some choice duets. While there were a few serious moments among the pieces offered, the bulk of them were blatantly humorous — even downright hilarious, something of a departure from the old art song tradition. For example, in Tom Cipullo’s “Another reason I keep a gun in the house,” Bird produced some actual barking noises as she complained furiously about a neighbor’s exasperatingly noisy dog.
Burns, in a deranged ditty by Gabriel Kahane (“Opera Scene,” from Craigslistlieder), sang of a strange compulsion to drop ice cubes down people’s shirts and proceeded to whip out a baggie full of them and slip one down down the back of accompanist Lee’s dress as the song ended. She was a good sport about it, and contributed vocally to several numbers as well. In “Marriage Tango,” one of their duets, the couple acted out the actual dance, while singing salaciously about getting it on after the kids go to bed. It had everybody laughing (and a few grannies blushing). Other choice songs in the program came from composers Libby Larsen, William Bolcom, and Ned Rorem, among others. Mayhaps more people would listen to contemporary composers if they knew how downright funny they can sometimes be.
At Thursday’s final MIT program, John Kennedy spoke of “festival fatigue” and the “melancholy of farewell” as Spoleto 2014 winds down. Then came four choice works, all by contemporary composers. Two of them were by Louis Andriessen, whose “The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven” opened the Spoleto Festival Orchestra’s (SFO) big “Beethoven Transformed” concert. His brief Shared Memory, for violin and oboe, came across as a bittersweet lament, embodying the forlorn feeling many of us get whenever Spoleto goes away. By the way, all the evening’s instrumental honors were done by incredibly accomplished SFO members — big, fat kudos to all of them.
Clarinetist-composer extraordinaire Gleb Kanasevich’s Installazion/Moduli/Versi was up next, a rather strange but engaging piece for cello and piano. Both musicians delivered simple figurations and textures that included natural diatonic dissonances, some of which gained an additional sense of edgy and chilling discord when the cellist intentionally played long, drawn-out notes that were ever so slightly off-pitch … Brrr! We then heard György Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Schumann, a highly expressive piece for clarinet, viola, and piano that consisted of five very brief dance-like episodes preceding a protracted final movement that again expressed the bereft emotions of farewell.
The concert and the series came to a resounding close with the second Andriessen piece and it was nothing like his poignant first piece. The English title is Perseverance, and the raucous music certainly lived up to that. Scored for piano with three trumpets, three trombones, and three saxophones, the ensemble — in distinctly minimalist fashion — made a LOT of noise. Dynamics were mostly restricted to various levels of LOUD, with individual instruments or sections coming in at random intervals, such that the piece never sounded quite the same twice. Just getting through the piece’s duration of around 20 minutes was a true feat of endurance (especially on the part of the brasses), hence the title. Several players were looking exhausted, or even in pain, by the time it ended. And it was quite the interactive experience, as (per the composer’s specific instructions) the audience was encouraged to cheer the musicians on as they played. And cheer them on we did, with loud bravos, whistles, and clapping, as well as yelling things like “GO, you trumpets!” or “You can DO it!”
We all had a real blast. What a way to end a program.