The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé was of the opinion that poetic expressions become more evocative when the things they refer to remain elusive. He even went so far as to suggest that the ‘point’ of a poem should reside for the most part in the beauty of the sounds rather than the content of the "message." I suppose this is a gross simplification of a subtle approach to poetry, but it dovetails with my own experience to some degree. I have to admit that most of the vocal music I love and return to is being sung in languages I don't understand.
Even the most stirring lyrics are likely to become banal with repetition, if you happen to know what they say. On the other hand, stripped of their meaning, the same words float on the music, conveying its emotional content with little need for context. Well, this isn't entirely true. If you're listening to a song by Schubert, say, or Edith Piaf, it helps to know the gist of what it's about. That's why they invented supertitles, and I wish they made use of them in recitals as much as they do at the opera house.
By chance, I attended three vocal concerts last weekend, all of them in foreign tongues. On Thursday night Hilary and I drove to St. Paul to hear Swedish soprano Miah Perrson sing songs by Grieg and Schumann.
Not being adept at describing nuances of vocal expression, I can do no better than to echo the remarks of Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, who heard the same concert a week before I did.
He makes mention of Persson's "radiant sound and refreshingly direct expressivity." That just about nails it. He goes on the observe that "she brings bloom and sweetness to her voice when called for. But she turns her sound slightly earthy or pale when the emotional situation demands it."
Not knowing German, I really had no idea what any particular situation demanded, but I will say that I liked Ms. Persson personally. She sang forcefully but also plaintively, as if she wanted to please the audience, but wasn't sure she was going to do so.
Or maybe it was simply the material. A large section of the program was given over to Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben” (“Woman’s Love and Life”). At a pre-concert lecture I'd learned that this song cycle depicts various stages in the emotional life of a woman, most of which seem to depend on how her relations with her boyfriend (and later husband) are faring. The titles of the songs, rendering into English, might be: "Since I Saw Him," "He, the Noblest of All,""I Cannot Grasp or Believe It," "You, Ring Upon My Finger," and so on.
Of course, it would be possible to keep the program open to the proper page and read along. Maybe I should have done that. But I can't stand the sound of rustling programs, and I don't want to contribute to it myself. Sometimes it reminds me of the sound I sometimes hear at night of worms pulling dead leaves down under the surface of the soil to eat them.
How do worms eat leaves? I can't imagine.
It would have been nice if Ms. Persson had said a few words to the audience during the performance. She was among friends, after all. Perhaps her English was shaky.
Her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, exhibited the flawless delicacy and selflessness that many accompanists do. He did a solo turn himself, and it was so simple and beautiful that the hall was ringing, not with virtuosity, but with sentiment and expressiveness.
Ms. Persson received a standing ovation, as do all performer in the Twin Cities, and she returned to the stage for a brief encore: Grieg’s “Jeg elsker deg” (“I love you”). She even announced the tune in English. It was a nice send-off.
The University of Minnesota Opera staged two-thirds of Puccini's Il Trittico over the weekend at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. In Italian, of course. The event was a hit—at least as far as I was concerned.
The music was lovely, but the staging contributed just as much to the pleasure of the evening.
In the first place, by tossing "Il Taborro" out of the trio the producers gained an hour of show time. This made it more convenient to reverse the order of the remaining two numbers. In the original version, the comic tale, "Gianni Schicchi," appears third, following a) a grisly verismo tale of adultery and murder and b) a tale of heartless confinement followed by a tragic suicide. Appearing in that slot, it tends to seem inconsequential—basically an elaborate farcical frame for the brief if unforgettable aria "O mio babbino caro." It plays much better considered on its own merits as a comedy, and the decision to set the story in modern times was also effective, making the class distinction between Gianni Schicchi and the scheming and avaricious Donati family whom he hoodwinks more obvious, and funnier.
The director of "Suor Angelica" took greater risks, setting the drama in a vaguely Asian setting. All of the nuns wore masks, and their gestures were choreographed in a brutal, mechanistic style that was probably meant to convey the joyless and repressive atmosphere of the convent. That was the effect, at any rate. The staging succeeded in stripping the opera of its latently sentimental trappings, but it grew tiresome long before the story was over, dehumanizing the nuns in a way that doesn't match the details of the story. Then, in the final scene, we're jerked in the opposite direction, as a huge portrait of a sweet little boy appears on a screen, fading to a graphic that's presumably a close-up of Christ's suffering.
Despite these shortcomings, the singing was lovely and powerful, and the supertitles kept us abreast of what was actually going on.
The following afternoon, we found ourselves on the campus of the College of St. Catherine to hear guitarist Sharon Isbin and soprano Isabel Leonard perform some Spanish music as part of the college's Women of Substance series. We'd gotten the tickets as the result of a reckless bid at a silent auction at a charity fund-raiser. The money went to Uganda. (Good thing). We went to the concert. (Also pretty good).
I have never liked O'Shaughnessy auditorium much. Perhaps nobody has. I think of it as concrete brutalist modern, but architectural historian Larry Millett has a more nuanced take:
This large theater—a confrontational hunk of brick, concrete, and glass that closes off the east side of the quadrangle—remains the most important, and most controversial, of St. Catherine's modern-era buildings. Scaled in a way that emphasizes its brawn, it's a shot of architectural testosterone delivered to the heart of the campus, and it has a kind of bad-boy strut.
Also worth noting is that the auditorium, which seats 1800, has no central aisles. This means that you might have to squeeze past twenty or twenty-five people to reach your seat, and just pray there won't be a fire.
The lobby seems to have been an afterthought, awkwardly narrow, but that means it can seem bubbly and exciting even when the event itself is a flop.
And while I'm in complaining mode, I might also mention that the program notes leave a great deal to be desired. For the Music for Spain concert we attended, the brochure contains three pages of advertising and copious information about the performers, their recordings, and all the awards they've won, but absolutely nothing about the music to be performed beyond the titles of the works. Why? Those who receive a program have already bought a ticket. They don't need to be convinced that the artists they've come to see are worth their attention. But they might like to find out a bit about Xavier Montsalvatge, one of the composers whose work is being performed.
And how about García Lorca, who wrote all the songs on the first half of the program? Might this be the famous poet Federico García Lorca? Did he compose music? Did he also write the words to these songs? Are they folk songs? Did he compose the songs or collect them? Nothing.
The concert itself was worthwhile, and by the end of it I felt that I'd "gotten to know" both Isbin and Leonard a little better, due to their slightly caustic on-stage patter. But when all is said and done, the expressive range of music from Spain is fairly limited. And once you've developed a familiarity with the flamenco forms from which most of these compositions derive, the "classical" versions seem a little tame. That may explain why the "art" songs on the second half of the program struck me as more interesting than the Canciones espanolas antiguas on the first half.
Guitarist Isbin made matters worse by including three of the most threadbare pieces in the guitar repertoire in the program. I'm referring to Albeniz's "Asturias," Tarrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra," and Granados's "Spanish Dance #5." Good heavens. I used to play those pieces! Every guitar student plays them. Sharon plays them better, but so what? How about something with more unfamiliarity and genuine musical interest, like Federico Moreno Torroba's Castles of Spain?
On the other hand, Isbin's instrument had a gorgeous tone. The notes seemed to ring out effortlessly, as if the instrument were playing itself, and the image of a hot knife cutting through butter came to mind several times. (Maybe I was getting hungry, though it was only 3 p.m.)
An hour later we were enjoying a pleasant dinner at a restaurant downtown—also part of the surprise silent-auction purchase—when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone was hovering over our table, scrutinizing the half-eaten dish of scalloped potatoes.
"What are those?" the stranger said.
Looking up, I saw that it was Sharon herself. Evidently she'd come downtown to have dinner with some friends.
"We loved your show," I said. "Especially those two songs in the second set—"
"—the Montsalvatge?" she replied, sculpting the syllables of the name in the slightly clipped and edgy tone of high-class Spanish.
"...and also the de Falla."
"Well, thank you very much. The audience was wonderful," she replied in her strong, raspy voice.
It was a fitting end to a very musical weekend.
And it was in English.