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Recital Review Print

Schadeberg & Oldfather Perform for Newman Series

January 26, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:

If CVNC's scribes had solutions for all the "problems" said to grip the classical music business today - and make no mistake: it is a very big business - we'd be presenting instead of writing. The problems are many, ranging from repertoire to star-quest music-director searches to the virtual collapse of the recording side of the house. People don't buy season tickets any more. People are said to want only the tried and true. People (and groups) are hurting, economically. People have war jitters. The economy is in the tank. Treasuries are running on fumes. What to do?

Well, maybe - just maybe - we need a new approach to doing business. Maybe the umpteenth performance of a mainstream work by a DWEM (dead white European male) is not the solution. Maybe we need something new, for a change. Or maybe we need a return to what some might call "traditional values" - which, in the classical end of the industry would involve periodic refreshing of the repertoire. From time to time we see examples of this approach, and often the results are stimulating.

On Sunday, January 26, there were many concerts from which Triangle music lovers could choose. In Raleigh, there were presentations by NC Symphony artists at a local bookstore. The Tokyo String Quartet held forth downtown, competing (if that's the correct word) with Riverdance , while Raleigh Symphony artists and others offered chamber music and dance at Meredith College. In the Bull City, the Ciompi Quartet made its annual pilgrimage to the dorm space dedicated to the memory of its founder, Giorgio Ciompi, and - a bit later on - favorite son Nicholas Kitchen packed 'em in at St. Stephen's with the second of two all-Bach programs. In Chapel Hill, Women's Voices Chorus celebrated its 10th anniversary with a gala concert. And in Hill Hall, soprano Christine Schadeberg and pianist Christopher Oldfather (who is young, and who may or may not be a daddy) gave a marvelous program of oldish music, some of which was surely new to some of the people in attendance. This is an important point, of course, and one that, given the aforementioned probs, should not be overlooked: at every concert - yes, even at concerts where things like Beethoven's Fifth are played - there are people who are hearing the music for the very first time - and, in some cases, for the very last time, too..

The centerpiece of the Schadeberg-Oldfather program was Schoenberg's Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten , Op. 15, a work that is more talked about than heard. It is plagued by some of the most opaque poetry ever written, words that make no concessions to the readers or listeners, or - for that matter - to the singer. Indeed, the words are not even in conventional German - poet Stefan George eschews conventional punctuation and the capitalization of nouns. Musically, the piece occupies middle ground, as it were, between Schoenberg's earlier setting of one of George's works, in the finale of the String Quartet No. 2, and the famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) Pierrot Lunaire . Live performances of these scores are rare, but at long last, now, all have been done here. None is as off-putting as we have been told they should be - the headline of a review by the New York Times ' Donal Henahan some thirteen years ago proclaimed the set "A Detour That Led Nowhere." Not that Schoenberg was alone, of course: some people perceive that Rachmaninov, five of whose Op. 26 songs began the program, took late romanticism as far as it could go (but those who think this probably overlook Schoenberg's Guerrelieder , begun before the Russian songs but finished afterwards). Along similar lines, it is easy to conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, that Debussy came close to exhausting the art of French song - or that he took the form into yet another corner; in the context of the program under discussion, the Second Book of Fêtes galantes , which came after the Rachmaninov songs, seemed almost too close to atonality for comfort. It came as something of a surprise to encounter seven songs by Charles Ives next, but on second thought he, too, explored new paths, and it's a fact that there are few bits of music more extreme, in several ways, than "Like a Sick Eagle." In addition to Das Buch , the program also included three of Schoenberg's Cabaret Songs .

Now the point of the exercise, as Schadeberg explained, was to try to put Das Buch into some sort of context, and the solution was to select works composed at about the same time, so the music given (aside from two of the Ives songs, dated 1920-21) was penned between 1901 and 1910, which is to say before the Great War altered with such finality the world the several composers had known. The program succeeded in ways that even the performers many not have imagined, for in the context of the other works, the main Schoenberg item did not seem all that strange. The reasons for this are many. Schadeberg is a magnificent recitalist. Oldfather is a stunning pianist and partner. My companion and I picked a happy spot in Hill Hall, not noted for its acoustical excellence. The soprano exercised levels of control that often astounded this listener, and even on those rare occasions when the tone seemed to whiten, one assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the effect was intentional.

In every instance, the diction was remarkably fine. And the support the artists received from the Newman Series people was impressive, too: the fairly large-print program was supplemented by a text-&-translation sheet that came with the actual Russian words (not transliterations), named the poets and, with one exception, had carefully thought-out page-turns.

The overall results were spellbinding, and it was apparent - from the reaction of the other members of the audience - that this was not an isolated view. If the Russian songs were not, well, Russian enough, that's partly due to the facts that we don't hear them often enough except on recordings and the recordings that we hear are, generally, by Russians. (Curiously, the second Rachmaninov song turned up a week before this recital, on a new CD, in a previously unreleased 1914 recording by Chaliapin, whose performance is - predictably, perhaps - much less smooth than Schadeberg's was.) The same charge could be leveled at the Debussy - although Ameling helped show us that purity is of paramount importance, artists like Teyte conveyed greater emotion (and in these cases, neither singer was French!). Schadeberg's Ives was stunning. And her reading of Das Buch brought the piece to life in a way that few others have done - again, using records for comparison, for this may have been the first complete local performance, ever. In a sense, the use of three of the eight Brettl-Lieder ( Cabaret Songs ) seemed strange, but their appearance on the program served to remind the audience that there was more to Schoenberg than atonality - and they served, too, to bring the crowd back to some semblance of normalcy, so in that respect as well they were welcome.

Here's hoping the singer returns soon for more Ives, the rest of the Cabaret Songs , and anything else she'd care to share with her local public. Singing like hers is very special, and programming like this is so special as to constitute a Major Event - one that perhaps only a great university can manage nowadays. And lest we miss the point of the offerings presented so admirably by Schadeberg and Oldfather, we must close by reminding the readers that while these were all "modern" works in the vernacular of most classical marketing departments, the most recent item on the program was 82 years old .

For the record, the music for all of Rachmaninov's songs has been published in a single, inexpensive volume by Dover. I wish I could say the same for Ives' 114 Songs ..