New Music for Old Instruments
by John W. Lambert
March 5, 2009, Durham, NC: Despite his affection for Handel, Thomas Beecham, the largely self-taught English conductor who made three more or less complete commercial recordings of Messiah, didn’t like harpsichords – he likened their sound to that of skeletons making love on tin roofs. Chances are, then, that Sir Thomas would not have been particularly pleased with a concert in Duke’s Nelson Music Room that featured a superb two-manual Dowd instrument, Elaine Funaro and Randall Love, and a world-class supporting crew in a whole evening of new music (we use the adjective loosely) for harpsichord.
Aside from two works, all of the music performed was written for Aliénor, a non-profit organization run by Funaro that promotes contemporary works for harpsichord. (Yes, that’s somewhat self-serving, but if you think about it, it is passion for the arts that has inspired all manner of wonderful commissions, over the centuries, dating back to the Medicis and the most ancient popes.)
The theme was contemporary chamber music involving harpsichord – we use those adjectives loosely, too, because the oldest work is now 93 years young, and because rabid chamber music enthusiasts rarely admit duos as part of their hallowed musical tradition, never mind solo pieces. The lineup fell into four basic but uneven parts. First up were three recent compositions for violin and harpsichord, radiantly played by distinguished freelancer John Pruett and Funaro. The works were Ronald McKean’s Sacred Harp Dryads, an otherworldly Elizabethan-like number in modern dress, followed by a folksong-based piece that might well have been served up in two separate parts; Graham Lynch’s “Auspicious Cranes,” a highly effective tone poem in miniature (but we’re only guessing that the cranes are birds and not construction machinery, for there were no program notes…); and a freewheeling “Fandango” by Asako Hirabayashi that one suspects even David Oistrakh and Hans Pischner, whose recordings of Bach sonatas set all kinds of standards, would have adored. The composers are all around 50, and it’s likely they had a wonderful time, creating these pieces for these “old” instruments. Pruett played a quasi-baroque fiddle – gut strings, old-style bow, but otherwise, it appeared to be your typical modern violin. This nonetheless permitted excellent balance with the soft-voiced keyboard, and the overall results were highly enjoyable.
Between the first and second of these duets came a three-part solo suite by Daniel Basford, another Aliénor recruit, played by Randall Love, who is Funaro’s other half. He’s a wiz at new music, as his performances of many more famous composers’ scores have demonstrated, so this listener’s impatience with this work must stem from the piece, rather than the player: its numbers, all of which were quite varied, seemed about half again as long as the material itself merited.
There followed two important works for soprano and harpsichord, the first of which involved an accompanying ensemble. Penelope Jensen was the vocalist; there are few singers in our midst with more wide-ranging musical interests, and she’s equally at home with works both very old and very new.
For Dominik Argento’s extraordinary Six Elizabethan Songs, commercially recorded 13 years ago and thus, with the concluding number, one of the two best-known works on the program, the assisting artists were Funaro, flutist Brooks de Wetter-Smith, of UNC, Joe Robinson, oboe, of Duke and points west (and formerly principal oboe of the NY Philharmonic), Mary Kay Robinson, violin (formerly of the NJ Symphony), and (replacing Lisa Ferebee) Brian Howard, cello, a new name and face – here’s hoping he likes it in the Triangle and sticks around to play a lot! These songs are set to poems by Nash, Daniel, Shakespeare, Constable, and Jonson. Texts were provided, and they were needed at the outset, till the dynamics settled down a bit; for the rest of the mini-cycle, the balance and the singing and the playing were exemplary. Jensen is a gloriously communicative singer, like the greatest Lieder artists of the past, and this room, this music, and these partners were ideal for her. There was a considerable uproar at the end – especially so, given the customary restraint of chamber music partisans!
Following the intermission came the world premiere of James Dorsa’s Melting Away to Nothing (2008), based on texts by last year’s poet laureate, Charles Simic – and strange and sometimes troubling poems they are, too. The first line of the first poem is “The soul is a ghost ship set adrift on the seas of eternity”; of the second, “Little candy in death’s candy store”’ and the title of the fourth is “Death’s Book of Jokes.” Some of the songs are somber, some wry, and Jensen and Funaro infused them with life. Miracle of miracles, here’s a “new” work one longs to hear again, and soon. It received a warm reception, too.
But for some in attendance, the grand finale was the program’s chief draw. Manuel de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto (1926), nominally in B minor, is one of the Great Works of the 20th Century, to be sure, and as played at Duke, by Funaro, Smith, the Robinsons, clarinetist Arturo Ciompi, and Howard, with cellist Jonathan Kramer officiating as conductor, it lived up to its reputation and then some. (A personal note: I first heard it, via an old black-label Mercury record, when I was 6; its dense chords and bizarre tones and harmonies evoked in my vivid imagination all manner of devils and demons, overt and covert.)
The piece lasts less than a quarter of an hour, but those 14 minutes are action-packed, dramatic, and as compelling as any massive symphony of Mahler or opera by Wagner.
This concert was basically Funaro’s show, of course, but there was some fabulous chamber music going on – the interplay among those winds, and within the little string section, was almost unbelievably wonderful.
The Falla would have been worth the drive, all by itself, to be sure,
but of course there was so much more of great merit – and the
concert was free.