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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Dallapiccola, Carter, Schoenberg: Dawn Upshaw (soprano), The MET Chamber Ensemble, James Levine, Zankel Hall, New York City, 13 February 2005 (BH)


Dallapiccola: Piccola musica notturna (1953-54; arr. for chamber ensemble, 1960-61)
Carter: Luimen (1997)
Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 (1909; arr. for chamber ensemble ca. 1920)
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912)

The MET Chamber Ensemble

Michael Parloff, Flute
Eugene Izotov, Oboe
Steve Williamson, Clarinet
Deborah Hoffman, Harp
Howard Watkins, Celesta and Piano
Shirien Taylor-Donahue, Violin
Michael Ouzounian, Viola
Rafael Figueroa, Cello
David Krauss, Trumpet
Demian Austin, Trombone
William Anderson, Mandolin
Oren Fader, Guitar
Gregory Zuber, Vibraphone
Stephanie Mortimore, Flute, Piccolo
Patricia Rogers, Bassoon
Robert Morrison, Harmonium
David Chan, Violin
Timothy Cobb, Double Bass
Anthony McGill, Clarinet
Lino Gomez, Bass Clarinet
Christopher Oldfather, Piano

 

 

The tiny Dallapiccola that opened this fascinating afternoon begs the perennial question, Why isn’t this little gem played more often? Originally scored for a large ensemble, the composer made this reduced version, for muted strings and nocturnal, dreamy winds, all ravishingly done by the Met’s musicians. I would imagine most listeners would find it easy to enjoy, and if not, it’s over in seven minutes – but for me, all too soon. Allow me to quote the composer’s inspiration, a gently evocative poem by Antonio Machado called Summer Night:


It is a beautiful summer evening.
The tall houses have
their windows open
upon the ample plaza of the old town.
On the broad deserted rectangle,
stone benches, hedges and acacias
symmetrically outline
their black shadows in the white sand.
At the zenith, the moon, and on the tower,
the sphere of the clock illuminated.
I, in this old town, walk
alone, like a ghost
.


The Carter was slightly more difficult for me, even after hearing the guitar portion of it a few years ago, excerpted as Shard. Following a superb Variations for Orchestra by the Met musicians a few weeks ago, I found Luimen shiny but a tad inscrutable. The instruments form a bracingly weird portfolio: trumpet, trombone, harp, mandolin, guitar and vibraphone. But its logic eluded me somewhat, despite the totally winning confidence on display, especially Oren Fader and William Anderson in the crucial guitar and mandolin parts. David Krauss and Demian Austin brought forth some dusky, muted notes on trumpet and trombone that one wanted to last even longer. Nevertheless, my opinion aside, one friend found it the highlight of the program, including the Pierrot.


The Schoenberg Five Orchestral Pieces are a dazzling set for a very large orchestra, and the composer’s reduction genuinely communicates much of the original’s brazen splendor. (How can it be that this work is almost one hundred years old?) The second part, Vergangenes (Yesteryears) ended with the Met players holding a staggeringly beautiful, frozen chord, perfectly in tune – this is sensational playing. And although now and then I longed for the percussion that flavors the larger score, the composer cannily substitutes piano and harmonium, precisely contributed by Howard Watkins and Robert Morrison.

The opportunity to hear not one, but two versions of Pierrot Lunaire within a week is unusual, even in the dense New York music scene. Last week’s by Lucy Shelton had a ferocious edge, delivered sometimes with a sneer that is probably more ideally suited to the set’s nightmarish poems. But some might actually opt for Dawn Upshaw’s mellower, warmer take, which was seductive on its own terms. In the first few minutes it was a little difficult to hear her, but then she sounded excellent. Where Shelton found a good median point for the sprechstimme, Upshaw leaned more toward the stimme, which was fine. The goal is to communicate the unsettling strangeness of these poems, and Upshaw was in her typical adventurous form, growing more feverish as the cycle progressed.


All of the musicians not already cited deserve mention, but (tossing a coin) I’ll choose David Chan and Shirien Taylor-Donahue on violins, Anthony McGill on clarinet, and Rafael Figueroa with some exquisite cello playing. James Levine, working hard this month, exercised his usual light hand with material he obviously adores.


Bruce Hodges


 

 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)