“Allusions” to Schoenberg include a political premiere at Boston Musica Viva

November 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm

By David Wright

Soprano Sarah Pelletier performed William Kraft's "Settings from Pierrot Lunaire" Friday night with Boston Musica Viva.

Got those post-campaign blues?  Do you miss the sound of Elizabeth Warren’s voice?

Well, not to worry.  The senator-elect’s dulcet tones—and those of Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and others—rang out once again Friday night in Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center, as Boston Musica Viva gave the world premiere of Curtis K. Hughes’s Verbiage for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion.

Happily, no tape or vocalist was involved in Hughes’s piece—just instruments playing themes and motives inspired by those all-too-familiar inflections that have emanated from our televisions, radios, and computer speakers over the past year.

In comments from the stage before the performance, Hughes cited progressive jazz as an influence on the piece.  But hearing the music, one couldn’t help thinking also of the uncannily speech-like “talking horn” solos of Louis Armstrong and other traditional jazz artists.

Attributing motives to politicians is a tricky business, and Hughes declined to identify which public figure contributed which musical phrase to his piece.  However, the scolding glissandi of Bayla Keyes’s violin at the beginning of the piece could only have come from a certain blonde, ever-so-slightly Native American lady from Harvard. William Kirkley’s bass clarinet contributed some distinctly Obamaesque chopped-off phrases.  And Keyes returned later with some even bigger glissandi, because what composer, once embarked on this enterprise, could resist the exaggerated inflections of Sarah Palin?

Beyond the guessing game, Verbiage proved to be a lively and varied composition in which piano and percussion often provided the glitzy backdrop for a speech or a heated conversation—some bits of piano confetti drifting down, for example, or a moment of Threepenny Opera-style bombast over self-important tom-toms.  Even without knowing the piece’s origins, one would likely resort to words like “rhetoric” and “cross-talk” to describe it.

Commissioned by Boston Musica Viva, Verbiage received a skillful and energetic performance by the ensemble, conducted by its music director, Richard Pittman.

The program proceeded from music shaped by speech to singing that shades into speech, in William Kraft’s Settings from Pierrot Lunaire, composed in 1987-90.  Any composition based on these French poems is sure to bring thoughts of Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark settings for speaker and chamber ensemble, whose centennial is being observed this year.

Although Kraft’s piece was commissioned by the Arnold Schoenberg Institute, no less, and used (at their suggestion) the same German translation as Schoenberg had, the Los Angeles-based composer went at the composition, and its treatment of the voice and instruments, in a way entirely his own.  (Looking and sounding vigorous at 89, Kraft spoke briefly from the stage Friday, in what was more a pep talk for new-music performances than an analysis of his piece.)

As one of this country’s most distinguished percussionists, Kraft brought a highly-developed sense of timbre and overtones to his Pierrot piece, which consisted of four vocal movements alternating with a prelude and three interludes.  Soprano Sarah Pelletier joined an ensemble almost identical to that of the Hughes piece, with the substitution of a standard clarinet for the bass and a slightly different percussion lineup.

In a program note, Kraft cited Impressionism as an important source for his style, and indeed his imagination in painting with tone color was a constant delight throughout this work, from the Firebird-like flutter of “crimson birds” in the first setting, “Feerie,” to the spooky night visions of “Fantasmagoria,” the third interlude.

Even the voice was often treated as an instrument, occasionally pulling back on a long note to become just one more overtone in the mix.  Elsewhere, however, it was called on to step forward and take charge of the narration.  Clear-toned and using vibrato only sparingly, Pelletier navigated this shifting aesthetic with assurance, eloquently conveying the moonlit musings of “Mein Bruder” and the charming sarcasm of “Harlequinade,” and, most memorably, moving into Schoenbergian speech-song to narrate the comedy-horror of Pierrot’s suicide.  Under Pittman’s direction, the ensemble sounded as sensuous and well-knit in this work as it was discordant and argumentative in Hughes’s political piece.

By this time in the concert, with Schoenberg himself waiting in the wings, the reason for the evening’s overall title, “Allusions,” was clear.  Links to the master’s preferred poetry, techniques, and harmony were everywhere.  Speaking from the stage, Pittman recalled founding Boston Musica Viva in 1969, giving concerts in a museum of Germanic culture at Harvard, and keeping Schoenberg foremost in the group’s musical thinking during those days.  Now, he said, it was high time for a program featuring “this beautiful music” and its progeny.

So saying, Pittman led an ensemble of violin, viola, cello, three clarinets of different pitches, and piano in Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 28.  The obvious “family feud” set up between the two homogeneous groups of instruments (with the piano as game-show host?) prompted the program annotator to write that this work “returns to some of the problems of instrumental balance associated with the First Chamber Symphony, namely the integration of wind and strings…”  If that’s the case, judging from this performance at least, Schoenberg must have decided not to solve the problem but to let it stand, as a Pierrot-like symbol of the artist’s alienation from the rest of life.

Composed in 1924-26 and imbued with rhythms of waltz, ländler, polka, and gigue, the Suite seemed to gaze longingly at Vienna’s popular dances across a gulf of modernity.  Under Pittman’s direction, the ensemble went not for the dance-band sonority that might have produced some “integration of wind and strings” but for a harsher tone, more grating than ingratiating.

None of that prevented a listener from taking pleasure in the first movement’s rich catalogue of waltz styles—fast and slow, strict and rubato, slender and robust—or the glimpses of high-stepping ballerinas in the second movement, or the vividly characterized variations on a popular song in the third, or the driving contrapuntal energy of the closing Gigue.

It all served to remind us that, in this classical (or whatever you call it) musical tradition, the Hugheses and the Krafts will have their say, the quest for the new will go on, and yet the master will always be the master.

Boston Musica Viva’s Family Concert with the Northeast Youth Ballet, with music by Samuel Headrick and Bernard Hoffer for ages 4 and up, will take place February 10 at the Tsai Performance Center. Boston Musica Viva’s next concert for adults, with music by Weir, Child, Carter, and Currier, will take place March 24 at the Tsai Performance Center. bmv.org; 617- 354-9610.

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