Contemporary Music, Recital Review Print

Duke Encounters with Messiaen and Carter

November 2, 2008 - Durham, NC:

The Duke University contemporary arts series Encounters, presenting music of our time, celebrated the 100-year anniversaries of two giants of twentieth-century music, Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter. Guest artists Tony Arnold, soprano, and pianist Jacob Greenberg, both members of the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo, presented an extraordinary program which also included vocal works by György Kurtág and Thomas Adès. The concert took place in the East Duke Nelson Music Room, where director, professor, and composer Stephen Jaffe extended a warm welcome and introduced the recitalists, representing the first vocal program since 1999.

Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen were born on opposite sides of the Atlantic during the same year, 1908. Their musical ideas were similarly shaped by world events and influenced by Stravinsky, the Second Viennese School, and the French tradition of composition. (Elliott Carter studied privately with Nadia Boulanger, and Messiaen rejected association with French stereotypes). Exploring the outer edges of their art, both have had lasting influence on musical development on both shores.

Arnold and Greenberg are highly respected and equally committed to the performance of contemporary music. Arnold has recorded the music of many of the major twentieth century composers, including a 2006 Grammy Nominated performance of George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children on Bridge Records. Greenberg, whose countenance resembles composer, Kurtág, is a versatile player who performs as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player. He has performed with the Israel Philharmonic and the New World Symphony, among many others. In 2001, Arnold and Greenberg performed together at the Gaudeamus International Interpreters Competition in the Netherlands, where Arnold walked away with first prize, the first vocalist to do so. The program at Duke included two of the works from the award-winning recital ("Requiem for the Beloved," and "Life Story").

Carter, whose life trajectory sprung out of New York City, responded to the violence of the twentieth-century with increasingly complex music. Written before he rejected the influence of neo-classicism, however, "Voyage" is tender yet forward looking. With text by poet Hart Crane that Carter referred to as "... a prophecy of his own [Crane's] personal voyage through life," the melodic material resembles Copland's, the common influence of Boulanger. And though I appreciate the greatness of Carter's string quartets, I rather enjoyed this look back into the pages of twentieth-century music. Arnold's voice was as clear as the light that reflected from her eyes.

The program included works by Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b.1926) and Britain's young, highly acclaimed Thomas Adès. With studied nuance and congruent facial affect, Arnold's performance of Kurtág's "Requiem for the Beloved," with text by Russian poet Rimma Dalos, was stunning — the artistic expression of Kubler Ross' stages of grief. A striking contrast, Adès's "Life Story" (1993), with text from Tennessee Williams' In the Winter of Cities, exemplifies his fearless originality, and Arnold matched the Southern Gothic literary style with equal measure of finesse. Giving a Joanne Woodward-like performance, Arnold changed her character in an instant. And her vocal agility and power place her in the league of Dawn Upshaw.

The closing half of the program featured Messiaen's third song cycle, Harawi (1945). Messiaen, whose musical inspiration rose out of his deep faith; his interest in natural beauty – birds and the geographic wonders of the West, and philosophic ponderings of love and death – composed the work during an intensely difficult period in his personal life. Considered by scholars to be the first of the "Tristan Trilogy," Harawi is, according to program notes by Peter Hill, "the last longest and most virtuoso of Messiaen's three song cycles." Composed in twelve sections with his own text, it is an exquisite farewell to his first love, violinist Claire Delbos. Drawing from native Peruvian language, he plays with the sounds of Quecha words – "Doundou tchil" and "Katchitatchi," for example – while the piano echoes bird song in the upper registers. With penetrating beauty, Arnold's singular interpretation was deliciously rich in color and Greenberg's piano collaboration, perfect.

Thanks to composer Stephen Jaffe, with the support of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, we are fortunate to hear and witness great music and magnificent talent. With brave and capable artists, the composers with whom they collaborate, and informed presenters, art music is alive and well in the Triangle. It was an evening to remember.