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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Birtwistle (performed and with composer commentary): Soloists, Brad Lubman (conductor), Ara Guzelimian (moderator), Zankel Hall, New York City, January 31, 2005 (BH)

BIRTWISTLE Five Distances for Five Instruments (1992)
BIRTWISTLE Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker (1998 and 2000)
BIRTWISTLE The Woman and the Hare (1999) (NY Premiere)
BIRTWISTLE Tragoedia (1965)

Commentary by Harrison Birtwistle


Brad Lubman, Conductor
Susan Narucki, Soprano
Lisa Bielawa, Narrator
Tara Helen O'Connor, Flute
Karen Bogardus, Flute
Jacqueline Leclair, Oboe
Michael Lowenstern, Clarinet
Peter Kolkay, Bassoon
Daniel Grabois, Horn
Molly Morkoski, Celesta
Bridget Kibbey, Harp
Courtney Orlando, Violin
Caleb Burhans, Violin
Dov Scheindlin, Viola
Priscilla Lee, Cello
Joseph Gramley, Percussion
Ara Guzelimian, Series Moderator

Sometimes composers should let their work speak for themselves, but happily Sir Harrison Birtwistle didn’t do this last Monday night, offering a model of modest, quite hilarious and ultimately generous commentary. Over the years I’ve suffered through some eye-rollingly pretentious “explanatory notes” about music, usually uncomfortably impenetrable supporting material that does absolutely nothing to further one’s understanding or appreciation of the actual sounds on hand. This occasion, however, was a pleasantly congenial mix of interview and live performance, and Birtwistle’s remarks added often-wry observations. He is often inspired to do his best work by writers, but wisely resists trying to outdo their impact, allowing their powerful words do most of the talking, and ultimately leaves the audience to observe the resulting fusion with his striking music.

Interviewed by the always perceptive Ara Guzelimian, Sir Harrison introduced his Five Distances for Five Instruments by defining the difference between a string quartet and a woodwind quintet – in his view, the latter being a sort of play in which the actors are not related. Then in a more philosophical vein, he offered a window into his own compositional process, describing the miles of stone walls in northern England, created by piling rocks on top of one another. The trick is to complete a wall by “finding the right stone for the right space” – a rather sensible metaphor for the workaday craft of composing that often accompanies its inspirational component. One could sense this solidity in Five Distances, a throbbing exercise for five musicians who “play catch” with one another, each emerging with a melodic line while the others jab back sometimes almost angrily in counterpoint. The five musicians were Karen Bogardus, Michael Lowenstern, Daniel Grabois, Peter Kolkay and Jacqueline Leclair, all in excellent, playful form.

Perhaps the most startling was the “Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker,” to my ears the most uncharacteristically Birtwistle-ian work of the night. The texts resemble haiku, with sparely written parts for soprano and cello that are much more minimal and exposed than usual for this composer, and further I would imagine, very difficult to perform. However, Susan Narucki, one of the most glowing advocates of contemporary music, made it sound easy, and was having a very good night, astonishingly clear and accurate in her intonation. Her partner, cellist Priscilla Lee, was superbly assured, with splendid, commanding tone, nuanced phrasing and neatly executed attacks. I particularly enjoyed the second poem in the cycle: My friend tree / I sawed you down / but I [must] attend / an older friend / the sun, in which Narucki reached a thrilling fortissimo on the final word.

In Birtwistle’s introductory remarks he mused, “Verse is very good for the ‘small room’ [i.e., the bathroom] – exactly the right length,” causing ripples of laughter in the audience. So when Birtwistle was joined by poet David Harsent to discuss The Woman and the Hare, Harsent added with deadpan accuracy, “I now have an indelible image of Harry, reading my work.” Harsent explained that the spoken parts are intended to be “factual” whilst the sung portions are more emotional and lyrical. But no explanation could prepare one for the chilling result, as Lisa Bielawa intoned the spoken parts with an undercurrent of dread: Her flesh falls from the bone. The worst has gone / to the fire, the rest is mine. / She is changed, she is all-but meat. / Cut and come again. I lift my hand and eat. Narucki and the rest of the ensemble rounded out the cast in a performance that must have caused some to shudder.

I’d heard Tragoedia once before, when Ensemble Sospeso gave it its New York premiere in 1998. If this performance didn’t quite reach the same level of electricity, it was still excellent, and confirmed that the piece is one of the composer’s most involving. With Bridget Kibbey’s gorgeous harp positioned dead center (and the instrument’s black wooden column looking like a big exclamation point, a savvy friend suggested), the strings at left and winds at right, the group seems to constantly refer back to the harp, as if a mediator in some ancient game. Kibbey was particularly riveting, but again it takes musicians with a high level of expertise to bring off Birtwistle’s work. And in the two large works, Brad Lubman did a fine job navigating this music.

Special mention to the crafty Paul Griffiths, whose program notes were creatively arranged in sections titled Prologue, Parados, Strophe I, Anapaest I, Antistrophe I, Strophe II, Anapaest II, Antistrophe II, and Exodos, deftly mirroring Sir Harrison’s interest in Greek tragedy.

Bruce Hodges

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