Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tepid, Torpid

To the 92nd Street Y last night, my first visit there, with Steve Smith, for what looked like a promising concert of Ravel, Rorem, and Brahms, with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, plus baritone Nathaniel Webster and violist Cynthia Phelps.

And "promise" was mostly what the program had going for it. The Ravel, a one-movement violin sonata written during his student years and not published until after his death, is salon music. It's pretty, and it was prettily played, and it would make very nice background music for a tea party of old friends. For any other use, it's about 15 minutes too long and much too repetitive.

Ned Rorem's song cycle Aftermath is a pacifist work, setting texts by a number of different poets, from Shakespeare to John Hollander. The composer was in the house and, seemingly ageless at 83, came bounding out for bows at the end. He looks like he'll be composing for another 20 years.

I'd like to hear the cycle again, with a more imaginative singer. Nathaniel Webster has an attractive basic tone, good control, dynamic variety. But the basic tone hardly varied, and while his diction is quite good, I still got no sense he was doing much with the words. He had the music on a stand in front of him, and perhaps that interfered with his spontaneity and ability to connect with the audience.

Still, in most of the songs, Rorem doesn't give the singer much help. Too many seem based on circular motifs, with phrases that circle stepwise or in arpeggios around a single tone. He sets the words with peculiar accents in some phrases, and the settings could do more to illuminate the poems and their structures. Putting that another way, I felt like the settings muddied the poems rather than clarifying or strengthening or adding to them. These lines, coming at the end of John Hollander's "The Park," should chill the listener, but Rorem's setting did nothing for me:

I shall never have grown into old
Winter with you now: has time robbed me
Of waiting with you here, or spared me?

A few of the songs are more effective than the others: I liked the first song, John Scott of Amwell's "The Drum," set with a spare piano accompaniment mimicking a drumbeat, and the last, Muriel Rukeyser's "Then," which was given a lovely melody indeed. Randall Jarrell's "Losses," the longest text, also got a fine setting. But other poems, such as "When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced" (Shakespeare sonnet LXIV), sounded incoherent.

The program concluded with a performance of Brahms's Piano Quartet in g minor, Op. 25. Brahms shouldn't be boring and shouldn't put the listener to sleep; last night's performance barely held my attention until the quartet finally woke up in the last movement. Somehow, the first three movements sounded as if they were all being played at one speed, without much being done to distinguish them from one another. The quartet took no risks, and what came out was spineless and dull.

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