News Column

The Santa Fe New Mexican Listen Up column

August 15, 2014

By James M. Keller, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Aug. 15--For concert aficionados who like to veer from the tried and true, Aug. 7 was a banner day in Santa Fe. Two pieces co-commissioned by Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival got their first airings in town, in both cases in the St. Francis Auditorium: at noon, Julian Anderson's String Quartet No. 2, "300 Weihnachtslieder" (composed in 2014), and, at 6 p.m., Lowell Liebermann's Four Seasons (from 2013). In neither case were these world premieres, those honors having gone to different members of the respective commissioning consortiums. Four Seasons was reasonably well traveled by the time it arrived, as it received its first two performances a year ago at Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon; was reprised last fall by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; and was given in Albuquerque by SFCMF the evening before its Santa Fe outing. "300 Weihnachtslieder" was unveiled by the Arditti Quartet this past May at London'sWigmore Hall, where Anderson is composer in residence.

The two pieces could scarcely have been more different. Anderson provided a commentary for his piece that ran to some 850 words, enough to fill an entire 8 1/2 -by-11-inch page of the festival's program book. He explained how he arrived at his subtitle, which means "300 Christmas Songs": "I consulted several old sources of approximately 300 ... Christmas songs from Speyer, Berlin, Cologne, LÜbeck, and elsewhere, most of them dating between 1500 and 1750. ... It was not my intention to make the German Christmas songs ... audible on the surface of the piece but to allow their melodic contours, moods, rhythms, and texts to affect my music." He drew on another source beyond those: "I also listened to recordings of church bells dating from the period and the same territories as the songs. My new Quartet uses spectra of such bells as a harmonic and modal resource and also the rhythms of bell ringing from these regions."

He tips his hand with that word spectra. If you hadn't known before, you would realize now that Anderson spent a formative stint absorbing the approach to composition known as spectralism. He studied for a while in Paris with Tristan Murail, an influential figure in the spectralist circle. To define spectral music, we might turn to the article in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Second Edition), which was authored by none other than Julian Anderson: "A term referring to music composed mainly in Europe since the 1970s which uses the acoustic properties of sound itself (or sound spectra) as the basis of its compositional material." A spectralist approach to writing music typically involves conducting a mathematical, computer-generated analysis of the acoustic make-up of a given sound, representing the result graphically in a sonogram, and then manipulating, or "resynthesizing," the information that has been extracted from that basic sound to massage it into the eventual composition. The concept proved most attractive to French, British, and Romanian composers, most of whom left classic spectralism in the dust even though they maintained some of its precepts as their personal styles evolved. Anderson, who is British, invested the piece at hand with a personal flavor by applying, in all movements but one, a tuning system that uses only intervals wider than a standard semitone, a system he refers to as "macrotonalism."

Though spectral music has been around for four decades, it has not yet gained a fervent following among general listeners. Neither has music written in nonstandard tunings, whether microtonal or macrotonal. I don't suspect that Anderson's new string quartet will do anything to reverse that situation, notwithstanding the zealous interpretation it received from the FLUX Quartet. Listeners who imagined that the piece would be a kind of "Name That Tune" with bits of Christmas carols flitting by would have been disappointed. Much of Anderson's program essay did in fact detail where listeners might espy such passing fragments, but its utility was undercut by the fact that the lights in the hall were extinguished during the performance and nobody who had read his essay in advance could possibly have remembered where to listen for what as the seven movements unrolled. I myself was smugly proud to spot in the third movement an allusion to the carol "Resonet in laudibus"; but when the lights came up I read that "the linear melodies are distantly derived from the carol 'Resonet in laudibus'?" ... in the second movement. Such a bummer. The piece ran on for about 20 minutes, at which point it stopped, though the audience was obviously confused about whether or not it was actually over. The performers sat for a while in silence, perhaps scouring their pages to make sure they hadn't forgotten anything.

A composer has every right to explore paths that hold little interest for the lay listener. Already back in 1958, the composer Milton Babbitt wrote: "The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been less extensive than his background in other fields." Point taken. And yet, there's still life in those comforting, old-fashioned scales and arpeggios, and I can think of no American composer who invests the traditional materials of music with the combination of originality and consistent expertise that Lowell Liebermann does. His Four Seasons is a six-movement suite for mezzo-soprano (here Sasha Cooke) with clarinet (David Shifrin), violin (Ida Kavafian), viola (Steven Tenenbom), cello (Peter Stumpf), and piano (the composer himself). It draws on a sequence of poems -- mostly sonnets -- by Edna St. Vincent Millay, of whom an insightful but anonymous essay on the website of the Poetry Foundation observes, "She was able to combine modernist attitudes with traditional forms, creating a unique American poetry" -- words that could be transposed to the field of composition and apply quite aptly to Liebermann.

The opening poem, which involves spring (though not in a pretty way), is filled with modernist vigor, and it is also profoundly American: at the words "I know what I know," Liebermann tellingly lets loose a slow riff of ragtime. Right from this opening movement one was struck by the composer's finesse in employing the assembled forces, prizing clarity in his instrumental textures. Cooke used her ample, rich-toned, eminently appealing voice to convey her part with conviction and sensitivity. The music moved on without a break to summer, where a luscious melody was supported by delicate elaborations on the piano, all against a background of sustained string writing. The third and fourth movements are both given over to autumn; in fact, they are two contrasting settings of the same bleak poem, "The Death of Autumn" -- an inventive idea. The first time around, the poem gives rise to high anxiety of a minor-key, scurrying sort that puts a listener in mind of Shostakovich; following that, it receives a languorous treatment for just mezzo-soprano and clarinet, a bit reminiscent of Vaughan Williams' "Blake Songs."

Winter may take the prize as the most arrestingly beautiful expanse of the set, its flickering refinement underscoring the spirit of the poem: "... the rain/Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh/Upon the glass and listen for reply." And yet, the epilogue ("Mindful of you the sodden earth in spring") rivals it in its exquisite effect, now perhaps recalling the lyricism of Barber. Suggesting points of contact between Liebermann's cycle and certain acclaimed predecessors should not be taken to suggest that he does not possess an original voice. It means, rather, that he is attached to the trunk of a musical tree that has been sending out new branches for centuries and remains far from exhausted.

On Aug. 7, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale was joined by members of the Santa Fe Symphony and four vocal soloists for an all-Mozart program that culminated in the composer's Requiem. At the head of the solo roster stood the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, a native New Mexican who withdraws to her home here when she is not treading the boards of the world's leading opera houses and concert halls. One of the consummate musicians of our time, she was understandably a "big draw" for this concert, and on the first half of the program she was spotlighted in two sacred arias, the "Laudate Dominum" from the Vesperae Solennes de Confessore and the "Laudamus te" from the C-minor Mass. She delivered both with singing of superlative distinction, richly reedy of tone, confident of coloratura, never losing sight of the lyric line. In both of these arias Mozart was providing sacred music destined for light-filled cathedrals, and Graham invested these songs of praise with infectious good spirits, as if we happened to be catching Dorabella going to church. The chorus and orchestra backed her up enthusiastically in the Vesperae selection, and on their own they offered a worthy rendition of the composer's "Ave verum corpus," a gemlike miniature among his late masterworks.

For this performance, director Joshua Habermann enlarged the Desert Chorale with a few extra voices imported from the St. Martin's Chamber Choir of Denver, yielding a chorus of 32 singers. In the Requiem, their number was reduced to 29, since three of the Desert Chorale's members -- soprano Megan Chartrand, tenor Andrew Crane, and bass John Buffett -- joined Graham for solo duty. Solo singing is sometimes the Desert Chorale's weak suit, but each of the three proved up to the task. The beefed-up chorus seemed intent on raising the roof, which was appropriate for some of the Requiem's expanses; probably they tended all the more in that direction for having the support of an orchestra, which is a rare treat for them -- and for the audience. The most refined choral work came in the "Domine Jesu Christe" section, where more restrained volume allowed the group's attentive diction and carefully molded color to shine.

When Mozart died, he left great expanses of his Requiem unfinished. Modern performers therefore have to choose among a number of completions that have been put forth over the years. The one most commonly encountered is the version prepared shortly after the composer's death by his pupil Franz Xaver SÜssmayr. The one Habermann chose, however, was that of the Mozart scholar Robert Levin, which was published in 1993 and has gained a substantial following during the past decade or so. Levin maintains a good deal of what SÜssmayr proposed, but he does a fair amount of touching up throughout and adds some original bits of his own, including fugues that Mozart almost surely would have provided at certain points but that would probably have stretched SÜssmayr beyond the boundaries of his ability. The "original" section I like the least in Levin's version is his take on the "Lacrymosa," which in Mozart's score breaks off after eight measures in D minor. From that point, Levin mostly follows SÜssmayr's lead, but he rewrites the movement's accustomed conclusion to segue into an "Amen" fugue, which he has based on a brief sketch by Mozart. Little more than a minute long, Levin's fugue leaves me hungry; it gets hung up on pedal points such that one feels there is too little exposition, too much cadencing, and no suggestion of a harmonic journey. Apart from that, his completion holds up convincingly. When all is said and done, the matter of what version is being performed is probably of rather slight interest to most people experiencing the piece. This concert represented some of the best work I have heard from the Desert Chorale, which, through the addition of the orchestra, was liberated to explore a level of repertoire it can only have found satisfying. May we hope that a collaboration with the Santa Fe Symphony might become a regular feature of the Chorale's summer season?


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