Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

Dawn Upshaw and Kiri Te Kanawa in Concert
AUFBAU 65:22 October 29, 1999 p.13
Timely and Time[-]less Musical Cycles and Stories
[original subtitle: Foss, Davies, Kiri [and Grace]]
1254 words [optional cuts: 505 words] by Leonard Lehrman

Two timeless song cycles of the 1960s were given riveting performances in what should have been full houses October 10 and 13 at Weill (Carnegie) Recital Hall and Columbia University's Miller Theatre. [Only the steep ticket prices of the former and the lackluster companion programming of the latter seemed to have kept at least some listeners away.]

Soprano Dawn Upshaw essayed Lukas Foss's classic 1960 four-song "Time Cycle", in the chamber version of 1961, while bass Robert Osborne acted out Peter Maxwell Davies' eight "Songs for a Mad King" of 1969. Both works deal with time and sanity slipping away, and both, while distinctly of their time, have achieved a kind of timeless classic status.

[Time Cycle at Weill]

Lukas Foss's life began in Berlin, either in 1922 or 1923--the stories conflict. In an interview with Aufbau Foss endeavored to explain: "It depends on whether my passport or my brother's passport is accurate. We'll never know!--though I'd like it to be true that I'm a year younger than I think I am!" In any case, 1933 brought him to Paris; 1937 to America, where his work took on a definite American flavor; most of the texts he has chosen to set have been in English. "Time Cycle," though, begins with short British poems of W.H. Auden and A.E. Housman, and then dives into Kafka and Nietzsche in their original German, much of it spoken rather than sung.

[The original version for soprano and orchestra, which Adele Addison premiered with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, contained improvisatory interludes for clarinet, cello, piano and percussion. These are usually eliminated in the chamber version for that group of instruments; they need not be (Foss told us), but they were here, probably so as not to make the rest of the program too crowded.]

The MET Chamber Ensemble concert began at 5:00 with pianist/artistic director/conductor James Levine entering carrying a violin-- just in case his concert master Raymond Gniewek were to break a string in the opening Contrasts of Bela Bartok. He need not have worried: the performance lacked the sharp downbeat accentuation characteristic of the Hungarian speech and folk music that inspired this piece[, with harmonics often emerging as multiphonics].

Much more theatrical were "Three Theatrical Songs" from the unproduced 1946 play, Fabulous Voyage, with music and texts (in part) by Milton Babbitt. Upshaw, accompanied by Levine at the piano, revelled in them, enjoying their sensuality and double entendres mostly with her eyes closed. Slyly brilliant, in an off-hand Noel Cowardesque way, these songs, the composer told Aufbau, "made me more money than all my other published compositions--about ten dollars!"

[Less successful, but more typical of the severe style for which Babbitt's compositions have become known, were his "Two Sonnets" on texts by Gerard Manley Hopkins, in which the poet specified stresses which the composer only fleetingly observed. John Cheek was the brave bass- baritone, accompanied by three instruments, conducted by Levine.]

Chamber works by Robert Schumann

The program concluded with three classic chamber works by Robert Schumann. John Ferrillo's sweet-toned oboe-playing in the Three Romances, op. 94 spun out the long lines--almost too long, with occasionally insufficient breath to sustain the espressivo to the end of the phrase.

James Levine's accompaniment was reserved, almost wooden, except when rhythmically somewhat mannered. More natural were his tempi in the Three Fantasy Pieces, op. 73 with capable clarinetist Ricardo Morales. And the Piano Quintet, op. 44 came across so brilliantly that a portion of the nearly-filled auditorium burst into applause after the third- movement scherzo. In the concluding "Allegro, ma non troppo," a slightly fumbled final broken-chord run in the piano served only to show that even James Levine is human.

Mad King at Miller [appeared in print as: Mad King of Miller Theatre]

Barely a minyan showed up for the preconcert discussion at Miller Theatre with Minnesota Contemporary Ensemble conductor Duane Schultheiss and composer Libby Larsen, the world premiere of whose Neon Angel opened the program. Written for the same ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion as the Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King, it is essentially, as the composer herself said, a deconstruction of a French popular song, "La Mer." [Indeed so much of the song is heard intact during the work that one wonders how the credit and royalties issues were dodged.

Paul Siskind's Duo Bagatelles (1990) for clarinet and cello proved to be trifles, followed by the New York premiere of John Howell Morrison's "Rising Blue" (1996) performed without music by violinist Troy Gardner with tape accompaniment.]

In the program's major work, soloist Robert Osborne, semi-staged by Karen Coe Miller, was impressive, yet somehow distant, expressing more horror than fear, and never anything like a vulnerability that might have brought sympathetic feelings from the audience. The action around flutist/piccolist Jane Garvin in a large birdcage was often inspired, and the physical shattering of the violin near the end is always a sure-fire shocker. Larsen noted that many of Davies's musical gestures have become clicheed, yet all seemed fresh, at least by comparison with every note of the program's first half.

[Te Kanawa at Carnegie]

There was nothing timely at Kiri Te Kanawa's recital, with which she has been touring the United States (including three cities in California next month), except possibly the well-known Mendelssohn and Liszt settings of Heinrich Heine's "Auf Fluegeln des Gesanges" and "Die Lorelei," in honor of the poet's bicentennial--songs which will also be part of Goethe House's New York celebration of that event December 12.

Despite a very thin mid-range "ee" vowel, hers is of course one of the great voices of our time, and Carnegie Hall was packed.

A slight scratch could be heard in the one operatic excerpt, from Der Freischuetz, but the climactic fortissimo diminuendo Kuss in Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" could hardly have been bettered. The four Mozart and three Duparc songs that followed were quick, light, and, like most of the concert, dreamy. Warren Jones was the ideal accompanist, performing every note from memory with seeming effortlessness.

The only fireworks came at the end in the form of five delightful Flores Argentinas by the 87-year-old Argentine composer Carlos Gustavino. [While Dame Kiri's German and French are nearly flawless, her s's became z's and her j's zh's in the charming Spanish texts by Leon Benaros.]

[Paley at Merkin]

"Creative tension" was the order of the day Sunday evening, October 17, as witty host Isaiah Sheffer put it. A packed Merkin Hall listened intently to the dynamic readings by Robert Sean Leonard and Linda Lavin of classic stories by Grace Paley, while tensely inquiring at every interlude of an audience member with a Walkman as to the fate of the New York Mets. By the end of the reading, the Mets were still alive (shortly thereafter they won, in the 15th inning, only to lose in the 11th two nights later). "We must have been doing something right," quipped the author. Both of the stories, "An Irrevocable Diameter" and "Goodbye and Good Luck" end in marriage. "They were both written in the 1950s," she explained with a rueful smile. What about musical settings of her words? "Goodbye and Good Luck" is right now being made into a musical, she said, by the same team that made Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun into Raisin. Watch for it!]

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