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Seen and Heard International Festival Review
Aspen Music Festival (VII) Susanne Mentzer: Songs by women composers; Edgar Meyer, double bass concerto (HS)
Susanne Mentzer's recital Tuesday at Harris Hall achieved an intimacy and directness of communication few singers can approach. Mentzer, one of the world's leading mezzo-sopranos, and pianist Craig Rutenberg, who accompanies her and an impressive list of singers regularly, wove a gentle spell over a rapt audience with their singing and playing. The hall was not full, disgracefully for Aspen concert goers, a loss for those who missed one of the most exquisite evenings of music I have heard here.
Mentzer, who has been spending summers teaching at the Aspen Music Festival and School since 2000, created a program entirely from the work of women composers. Many of these songs are on the 2001 CD, "The Eternal Feminine," which Mentzer recorded with Rutenberg. Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel are relatively well known, but how many know Alma Mahler's songs? Only 14 survive, dozens other having been destroyed in a fire. Lily Boulanger, Rebecca Clarke, Carrie Jacobs-Bond and Libby Larsen completed the program, and it was a wonderful mix.
All the songs reflect a woman's point of view. It does so in the music, which, at least with the 19th-century composers, tends to be less forceful than that of the men who were composing at the same time. More significantly, it does so in the texts, particularly the 20th-century pieces by Bond and Larsen.
As a singer, Mentzer is at the top of her game. The voice has a clarity and richness without feeling weighty, which lets the music carry the words with a sense of effortlessness. She has a wide range, digging deep into the chest voice when needed, effortless as the top. Mentzer's extensive stage experience in opera was evident. A single gesture could suggest an emotional point, a slight change of color in the voice signal a new thought.
At the piano, Rutenberg was as much of a pleasure to hear, not only for the way his playing meshed seamlessly with Mentzer's approach, but for the subtlety of his sound. This was especially evident in the quiet, warm introduction to the first Schumann song, "Warum willst du and're fragen" (Why do you wish to question others?) and the lovely stillness of Mendelssohn's "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh" (Over all the treetops is rest.)
The Alma Mahler songs were a revelation. Not as harmonically or rhythmically adventurous as her husband Gustav's, they still are fresh and distinctive enough for us to mourn the loss of all those manuscripts lost. Mentzer was especially effective in "Bei dir est ist traut" (With you it's cozy), where her body language and winsome smile perfectly portrayed the lovers hiding.
Lily Boulanger was overshadowed by her older sister Nadia who famously taught some of the great composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Walter Piston and Philip Glass. But Lily's music, which reflects the place and era when she wrote (Paris, the years before World War I -- think Debussy), is as seductive and quietly subversive as her better-remembered contemporaries. When Mentzer sang it, a song like "Vous m'avez regardé avec toute votre âme" (You looked at me with all your soul) hung in the air with remarkable intensity.
Clarke, who was writing in England at the turn of the 20th century, sounds a lot like her contemporaries Frank Bridge or George Butterworth. Mentzer drew out the drama in her songs, especially the mythical ‘Seal Man,' which tells of a woman lured to her death by a selkie.
For comic relief, next came a set of "Half-Minute Songs" by Jacobs-Bond, probably best known for her popular "I Love You Truly." Mentzer and Rutenberg mined the sly comedy in these half-verse miniatures, none longer than 30 seconds. They set homely aphorisms to music such as "Success never comes to the sleeping," in which the music evanesces as the singer and pianist nod off, and the quick uplift of "A friend is a present you give yourself."
The most modern, and most female-centric songs, were the set called "Love After 50" by Larsen, one of America's most prolific composers. Rutenberg struggled a bit with the bluesy turns in "Boy's Lips" and the sashaying honky-tonk of "Big Sister Says, 1967," but Mentzer got enough of the vibe for both of them. She was just shy enough in "Boy's Lips," a piece about girls comparing notes on their first kisses, and brassy enough in "Blond Men," about how seemingly unimpressed the protagonist is with good-looking guys.
For encores, Mentzer did a lighthearted Amy Beach waltz, "Wouldn't That Be Queer," and "The Queen of Terre Haute" by Cole Porter. The only male composer represented here wrote the comedy song (from the same musical that gave us "You Do Something to Me") entirely from the point of view of a talented woman trapped in a small Indiana town. But the crowning achievement of the entire evening was the final encore, a luminous arrangement of the American folk song, "Who Will Kiss My Ruby Lips?" Mentzer sang it with such breathtaking simplicity and utter beauty it could have been Schubert, only more straight to the heart.
Another distinctive and utterly personal soloist, Edgar Meyer, scored the major triumph at Friday's Chamber Orchestra concert, playing his own double bass concerto. Written in 1993, the piece infuses the classical form with the bluegrass flavor of Appalachia, much as Gershwin's piano concerto uses New York jazz. It also plays up the sort of free-standing rhythmic licks and free-wheeling use of the ultra-high register that makes Meyer's solo work so exciting. The dude can flat-out play, making his instrument, smaller than the usual double bass, as agile as a cello.
The piece itself is a show-piece, in the same way that Paganini's violin concertos show off the fiddle rather than explore the deeper meanings of music. The orchestra here, conducted by Michael Stern, becomes a background for the bass player. In Meyer's case, that's just fine.
The rest of Stern's concert was considerably less spectacular. French Baroque composer Jean-Féry Rebel's Les éléments, symphonie nouvelle opened the concert with a surprisingly raucous series of dissonant chords, meant to evoke chaos, then settled into the sort of simple, colorful dance music Rameau did much better.
After intermission, Stern pushed Schubert's Symphony No. 9 into a frenzy at tempos so fast that the details were lost. Schubert indicated Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too much) for the first movement, but Stern ignored the non troppo part. He took the Andante at a clip that felt more like allegretto, and by the time he got to the finale's allegro vivace things were flying by so fast that the trumpets could not be heard articulating their rapid-fire triplets at the end.
For all its speed, it was a pallid performance. It didn't help that the horns' famous opening theme sounded as if they were practicing it rather than trying to give it some shape. A recurring figure in the finale is a series of four-quarter notes, which begin and end many of the phrases. Only the string section seemed to have discovered that the purpose of those four notes is as much to propel the rhythm as to tie the themes together. They accented the first and third of the notes one time, let them decrescendo another.
There's a reason this symphony is nicknamed "The Great." It's monumental music, superbly crafted. It has gravitas, and the miracle is that it propels itself magnificently to a rousing finish. That is, when it's done right. Stern's result was not so "Great."
Note: Harvey Steiman will be writing regularly from the Aspen Music Festival through its conclusion in mid August.