Chamber Music Society explores a fine madness with soprano Arnold

Fri Oct 28, 2016 at 11:46 am
Soprano Tony Arnold performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Thursday night at the Rose Studio.

Soprano Tony Arnold performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Thursday night at the Rose Studio. Photo: Claudia Hansen

When the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center set about putting together Thursday night’s concert, did it consider the calendar date, the changing foliage and anticipation of spooky creatures (and clowns) haunting the night? The full crowd in the Rose Studio heard four colorful pieces, three with direct intimations of death and madness, on an aptly stormy evening.

The first new-music program of the season featured soprano Tony Arnold making her CMS debut, singing music from Thomas Larcher and Kaija Saariaho. Surrounding those were instrumental works from Harold Meltzer and James MacMillan. (The 70-minute, early evening program was later repeated at 9:30.)

Meltzer’s opener, Brion, despite it’s seeming façade as absolute music, was a piece of modern impressionism. Rather than a representation of landscape, the music was an expression of Meltzer’s internal experience of the Brion-Vega Cemetery, near Venice, Italy, designed by the architect Carlo Scarpa—a seeming place for contemplation and intellectual daydreaming.

Written for the unusual instrumentation of flute, oboe, violin, cello, guitar, and mandolin (the Cygnus Ensemble commissioned it), the music made imaginative use of the combinations of voices. Meltzer spoke to the crowd before the performance and mentioned the particular challenge of putting flute and oboe together. He cleverly solved the issue by having the flutist—Tara Helen O’Connor—doubling on piccolo and alto flute, and floating above the textures to represent a bird or haunting the oboe from underneath. He also created a marvelous and mysterious sound by doubling pitches with piccolo and violin, the latter playing bent notes.

The music gave the sense of shifting scenes and ideas as one strolled through the cemetery, listening to the natural sounds and stopping now and again to regard a monument or a decorative pool. This was an active tour, with a surplus of rhythmic vitality, especially in the complex, contrapuntal guitar and mandolin parts (Oren Fader and William Anderson, respectively). Episodic as the music went past, Brion gestured toward sonata form in the end, as the opening bird calls heard on piccolo returned on the mandolin, transformed by the internal journey.

Larcher and Saariaho’s compositions both came out of madness. For Larcher’s My Illness is the Medicine I Need, it was fragments of interviews with patients in insane asylums that he found in Benetton’s Colors magazine. Saariaho’s Die Aussicht came, text and title, from a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, in one of his periods straddling clarity and madness.

Larcher and Saariaho expressed two very different views of the condition. Larcher’s was surprisingly, and for this composer disappointingly, superficial. His style typically uses a spare, cast-iron formal structure to support advanced orchestration techniques, which makes for evocative and gripping sounds. My Illness did this too, but this turned to be both too much and too little for the songs.

Larcher’s setting of lines like “Eat and sleep. Eat and sleep. The monotony here kills you,” and “Once they give you the injection you instantly stop hearing voices” underlined the obvious and left no feeling of what is a fraught and terrible existence. Arnold was terrific, with a dignified commitment to the music, but the piece itself depended too much on the effect of voice, violin, and cello shimmering the piano strings, and too little on actual musical ideas.

Saariaho’s song was very much in the manner of the lied, with a vocal line that was a worthy throwback to the 19th century, the great age of madness. She is known for her own advanced timbres, but in this song the accompaniment was flute, guitar, violin, and cello, with a sound like a drypoint etching. The luster was in the delicate, graceful vocal line, spinning around a tonal center. The style allowed Arnold to expand in color, volume, and phrasing, and the song was a musical and expressive success.

Well known for his liturgical and vocal music, MacMillan’s Trio No. 2 for violin, cello, and piano, heard in its American premiere, was the first work of absolute music from the composer these ears have heard. What a startling contrast from his program music! In this piece, MacMillan sets out from a direct lineage with Shostakovich, but also drops in Celtic fiddle tunes, boogie-woogie, and some acerbic humor. All this is formed in a jump-cut structure that, depending on the mood of the moment, recalled either Jean-Luc Godard, William Burroughs, or Tex Avery.

This was maximally social music, with active interplay between the instruments and an ingratiating attitude toward the audience—the other side of the coin to his music for social rituals. Violinist Yura Lee, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and pianist Gilles Vonsattel played not only with skill but with appropriate verve.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents a program titled “Exploring Great Britain 5 p.m. Sunday.

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