Parlando explores music inspired by women saints and sinners

Mon Nov 07, 2022 at 2:15 pm
By Rick Perdian
Aaron Crouch was the tenor soloist in Julius Eastman’s Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, performed by Ian Niederhoffer and Parlando Sunday at Merkin Concert Hall. Photo: Faymous Studios

Parlando continued its exploration of new, underrepresented, and standard works in a fascinating program entitled “Heroines and Heretics” that featured music composed or inspired by Hildegard von Bingen, Joan d’Arc and Carmen. 

The connection between the three women—two of whom were actual saints and the third fictional, and anything but pure—may seem tenuous, but conductor Ian Niederhoffer provided the link. The concert, presented Sunday at Merkin Concert Hall, was intended to be a celebration of women who lived in societies that were hostile to them for simply being exceptional.

The three composers, the twelfth-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, the twentieth-century African-American composer Julius Eastman, and his near contemporary, the Soviet/Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, lived in completely different social environments, which is reflected in their music. What came as a surprise, however, was that although separated by centuries and countless other factors, the music of Hildegard von Bingen and Eastman seemed to spring forth from the same deep spiritual source. 

There are more surviving chants by Hildegard von Bingen than any other composer from the Middle Ages. Celebrated as a composer, poet and mystic, she lived most of her long life in sequestered religious communities. The music that she wrote was intended to be sung by nuns during religious services, but resonates today with those seeking solace, or perhaps just beautiful, otherworldly sounds.

Parlando performed a string arrangement of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Rex noster promptus est,” a Responsory for the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Although minimalism was a concept unknown to Hildegard von Bingen, the music she wrote is simple and in this wordless version of the hymn repetitive. Listening to Parlando’s strings play this heavenly music made it easy to discern a thread that links Hildegard to contemporary Holy Minimalists such as Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener.

The melody of “Rex noster promptus est” was first heard played by a solo cello accompanied by a drone. It was then taken up by another cello and eventually the entire section with the addition of one double bass. Even though the musical texture and sonorities increased in depth, the mesmerizing sense of quietude was consistent. 

The hymn served as a prelude to a far more dramatic and intense spiritual journey depicted in Eastman’s Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. Eastman composed the Prelude for unaccompanied, solo tenor voice in 1981, as the introduction to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, a chamber piece scored for ten cellos. Stylistically, it is Eastman’s take on minimalism, but a departure from that of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. 

A gay activist and social provocateur, Eastman found strength in meditating on the name of the pious peasant girl who led the French army to victory over the English and was burned at the stake when captured by the enemy. Eastman set the incantations by Saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine, who were her patron saints, which she received in visions before her trial for heresy that culminate with the demand, “When they question you, speak boldly.” 

Tenor and activist Aaron Crouch gave voice to the saints’ admonition, which in Eastman’s setting consists of only a dozen or so words. Exploiting the full range of his voice, Crouch did so with confidence and power. His demeanor was probing and calm, rather than defiant however, as if he was approaching the mystical with awe and reverence. 

The final piece on the program was Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite. Shchedrin created the one-movement work in 1967 as a ballet for his wife, the Bolshoi prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Scored for string, timpani and four percussionists, the suite is as humorous and iconoclastic, as it is dramatic. It is Shchedrin’s use of percussion, both as solo instruments and accompaniment, that is its most remarkable feature. 

The drama is inherent in Bizet’s opera, but the humor is totally Shchedrin’s doing. Apart from the musical surprises that he sprinkles generously through the score, the fun comes from the occasional absence of a familiar melody, which the mind supplies in an instant. Shchedrin’s suite begs for dancers and you can almost imagine the choreography in a performance as lively and brilliant as this one. 

As they had in the prior two works, given a melody or even a snappy accompaniment, the strings, apart from some messy pizzicati in the violins, played exceptionally well. Shchedrin was at his most creative and daring, however, in assigning melodies to instruments such as the marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel and bells. Parlando’s percussionists reveled in the opportunity to shine in such virtuosic flights of fancy.

Shchedrin built applause into the work, so it would have been impossible for Niederhoffer to reign in the audience’s enthusiasm in that regard. Nonetheless, he maintained musical and dramatic cohesion in spite of the interruptions. For all of the thought that Niederhoffer puts into constructing a program, he isn’t afraid to have some fun. 

Parlando presents “Cold War” featuring the music of Aaron Copland, Mieczysław Weinberg, and Edvard Mirzoyan February 16, 2023 at Merkin Concert Hall.

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