Monday, January 15, 2018

The Challenge of Continuing the Art Song Tradition

Of all the genres that respond to attentive listening, art song is probably the most challenging, for both composers and listeners, in our contemporary setting. This is particularly the case when the song is a setting of poetry, since the music constitutes a response to the poem as it has been written; and the capacity for reading (or listening to a reading of) poetry tends to be a challenge and has been so, probably for at least a hundred years. Indeed, the poet John Ciardi recognized the problem when he wrote the extended essay “How Does a Poem Mean?,” which was first published in 1959.

On the composer’s side, the challenge is one of establishing how the structure of the music will relate to the structure of the poem. On the text side structure involves both overall architecture and lower-level details, such as rhyme scheme and figures of speech. Then there is the layer of semantics that addresses what the poem means, in addition to how it means. Finally, one must allow for the fact that many poems were written to be recited, rather than read, which means that matters of “expressive delivery” must also be taken into account. The composer than has to decide to what extent he will enhance any of these literary features and when he will deliberately choose to contrast them.

Every other year LIEDER ALIVE! presents a Neue und Alte Liederfest program, which provides a platform to consider contemporary approaches to art song in the context of past traditions. Yesterday afternoon at the Noe Valley Ministry, LIEDER ALIVE! presented the latest installment in this project, entitled Neue Lieder, Neues Jahr! The program presented world premiere performances of songs by three composers, Composer-in-Residence Kurt Erickson, Luna Pearl Woolf, and Mark Carlson. The program also included a song by Henry Mollicone. All of the works by living composers involved reflections on settings of German poetry by composers that spanned the traditions of the nineteenth century.

It is important to observe that the nineteenth century was a time when those who chose to listen to art song did not need any explanations when it came to either what or how a poem meant. Thus, yesterday’s program, which spanned musical practices extending from Franz Schubert to Richard Strauss, provided an abundant sampling of highly literate composers, each of whom developed his own toolkit for taking a poem as a foundation and then building an innovative reflection on the text’s structure, meaning, and/or expressiveness. However, detached nineteenth-century listeners may have been from the literary sources, these were songs that drew them into the spirit of those texts.

It is thus important to acknowledge that yesterday’s performers, soprano Heidi Moss Erickson, mezzo Kindra Scharich, and pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg were are at the top of their game in leading attentive listeners into the respective domains of each of the songs performed. This was particularly evident when Erickson and Scharich presented the duets on the program. Their command of thirds and sixths, however familiar that idiom may be, never failed to engage the attentive listener, particularly since they always knew how to color those intervals to serve the needs of the text. For his part Greenberg could not have been a better accompanist, bringing a solid command of nineteenth-century techniques to provide each song with its proper context.

Of the new works on the program, the one that most seemed to provide a contemporary reflection of past traditions was Mark Carlson’s duet setting of Eduard Mörike’s “An die Geliebte” (to the beloved). His setting was preceded by Scharich singing the version composed by Hugo Wolf. In his note for the program book Carlson asserted that he “assiduously avoided listening to the Hugo Wolf setting.” Nevertheless, he had no trouble capturing the spirit of the text. Furthermore, he seemed better attuned to the extent to which sentence structure departed from strophic structure, particularly in the final lines. (The overall architecture is that of a sonnet.) Thus, while the words were being revisited, Carlson found fascinating ways in which to change not only the “lighting” but also the structural framework.

At the other extreme was Luna Pearl Woolf’s setting of Otto Bierbaum’s “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (dream into dusk). This was preceded by two earlier settings, the first by Strauss and the second by Max Reger. The listener was thus first struck by how each of those brought its own individual stance into what is essentially an intense interior monologue. On the other hand Woolf’s note for the program book cited the “sound-world” of the poem; and her composition gave the impression that her only objective was to craft her own “sound-world.” The result suggested little regard for any of those how-does-a-poem-mean factors, leaving the listener with some intriguing auditory impressions that felt curiously detached from the poem being set.

More successful was Erickson’s approach to Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s “Abschiedslied der Zugvögel” (farewell song of the migrating birds). This followed a setting by Felix Mendelssohn, which clearly grasped all the “rules of the game” in setting a poem and played the game with impressive dexterity. Erickson, on the other hand, chose to use the piano to provide what could be called an “avian context,” consisting of descending patterns of chords suggesting the birds in flight. He could then develop vocal lines for a duet that would respond to the rich harmonic textures coming from the piano while honoring the poet’s words in a separate “universe.” From a visual point of view, the piano provided a scenic backcloth in front of which the vocalists developed the letter and spirit of the poet’s words.

The program also included Erickson’s setting of Joseph von Eichendorff’s “Mondnacht” (moonlit night), which was followed by Robert Schumann’s setting of the same poem, both sung by Scharich. In this case Erickson seemed more interested in exploring the possibilities of an atonal setting. However, the results were, at best, academically impressive; and there were too many instances of the vocal line struggling to do justice to the words.

There were also a few selections of text given only one setting. The most impressive of these was the opening, Johannes Brahms’ duet setting of Mörike’s “Die Schwestern” (the sisters), the first of his four Opus 61 duets. This was lighthearted music with an ironic comic twist in the text; and Erickson and Scharich made it a sure-fire opening to draw audience attention to what would follow. (Those who know this song may also notice that, in a slightly twisted way, it serves as a predecessor for the “Triplets” number performed by Fred Astaire, Nanette Fabray, and Jack Buchanan in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon.)

Then there was the encore, which could have been called show-stopping had it not been planned as the end of the show. When you have both a soprano and a mezzo as polished as Erickson and Scharich and the program has included Strauss’ music, how could you not close out with some of his best duet writing from Der Rosenkavalier? The piano part may not have been up to the full richness of Strauss’ orchestral sonorities; but Erickson and Scharich compensated with a semi-staged account of that critically pivotal moment of the entire opera. This may not have counted as art song, but it was the perfect way to send the audience off with warm feelings.

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