Monday, July 2, 2018

New Songs for a New Age by Anno Schreier

Kindra Scharich (from the Exotic and irrational entertainment blog)

Yesterday afternoon at the Noe Valley Ministry, LIEDER ALIVE! wrapped up its seventh annual Liederabend Series with a solo recital by mezzo Kindra Scharich, accompanied at the piano by John Parr. Scharich framed her program with a selection of five songs by Franz Schubert at the end and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 98 An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved) at the beginning. However, what made the program special was the central offering, the North American premiere of a collection of five songs by Anno Schreier, all based on poems by Nora Bossong. The songs were written under a co-commission of LIEDER ALIVE! and Deutsche Oper Berlin (where Parr serves as Head of Music Staff). These songs were performed immediately after the intermission, which was preceded by a brief dialogue with Schreier conducted by LIEDER ALIVE! Composer-in-Residence Kurt Erickson.

Schreier was born in 1979, by which time the hyper-intellectuality of “systems” in the wake of Anton Webern was finally beginning to run out of steam. Those who had mockingly predicted in 1970 that triads would be “the next new music” were probably not prepared for the repetitive structures of Philip Glass; but by 1979 it would be fair to say that the subjective expressiveness of making music (with or without triads) was finally rising above the mathematical obsessions that had prevailed for at least two decades following World War II.

Schreier is definitely one of those composers for which that expressiveness matters very much. He acknowledged to Erickson that composing songs is still very much rooted in nineteenth-century traditions; but he also confessed that his favorite composer from the nineteenth century is Robert Schumann, whom he admires for the forward-thinking approach that composer brought to so many of his compositions. On the other hand his own inspiration to write songs came from his encounter with a book of Bossong’s poems. While there are occasional signs of her awareness of the poets whose texts were set during the nineteenth century, her approach to both subject matter and word selection suggests a stronger affinity for the poems of Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht’s texts have, of course, been set to music in significant abundance. Both Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler had their own ways of breaking with nineteenth-century tradition in setting his words, many of which would probably have made most of those nineteenth-century composers stumble. Bossong’s texts serve up similar challenges. The first of her poems that Schreier set was entitled “Ganymed,” presumably an unabashed acknowledgement to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem about the Olympic cupbearer to the gods, which had been set as Franz Schubert’s D. 544. One wonders what Schubert would have made of one of Bossong’s lines:
ein Vögelschen mit aufgeplatztem Schädel
a small bird with a fractured skull
It certainly does not fall well on the nineteenth-century German tongue; yet Schreier knew how to fit his music around Bossong’s images without getting bogged down in the structural intricacy of her lexicon.

The fact is that Schreier knew how to treat each of the five Bossong poems he selected as a single impression elaborated through choice of words. That idea of finding music to get to that key underlying impression mattered just as much to Schubert and Schumann, but they tended to deal with strophic structures around which they could establish a context. Schreier, on the other hand, “cuts to the chase,” beginning with a clear sense of context in which the vocalist is better equipped to wrap her tongue around even the most outlandish phrases in Bossong’s poems. Both Scharich and Parr clearly grasped the impact of Schreier’s strategy, providing the audience with a thoroughly engaging “new music encounter.”

D. 544 was also included in Scharich’s Schubert set. This was hardly a compare-and-contrast moment but just one of five songs recalling Schubert’s significant role in establishing the nineteenth-century innovations and traditions that made the period so rich in the art song repertoire. (Hugo Wolf would set this same poem later in the century.) The same could be said, of course, of Beethoven’s Opus 98 taken by many (or at least by the Wikipedia author) as “the first song cycle by a major composer.” Beethoven tended not to be at the top of his game when it came to setting texts; but, whether or not Opus 98 was “the first song cycle,” it is almost definitely pioneering in the way in which Beethoven provided interstitial material to integrate all six poems into a continuous flow, which comes to closure with a recapitulation. As P. T. Barnum would have said, that was enough to make the performance worth the price of admission!

For her encore selection Scharich chose to thank those in the audience who opted for her recital over the final performance of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the War Memorial Opera House. She sang Richard Wagner’s “Träume,” one of his five settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck. This provided an appealing afterthought to her final Schubert selection, his D. 827 setting of Matthäus von Collin’s poem “Nacht und Träume” (night and dreams). (This is also one of the songs in Wagner’s collection in which he explored material that would later appear in his Tristan und Isolde opera.) My guess is that no one in the audience was unhappy about the choice (s)he made in preferring art song over opera.

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