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Seen and Heard International Festival Review
Two premieres, both reactions (at least in part) to Sept.11, 2001, highlighted programs at the Aspen Music Festival this week. Libby Larsen's sing cycle, Sifting Through the Ruins, uses real people's texts collected by mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer from the weeks following that day when terrorist-guided planes brought down the World Trade Center in New York. Larsen powerfully evokes the feelings of those shell-shocked days.
Earlier this week, Robert Beaser's much lighter-hearted suite, Souvenirs, concluded its cycle of six folk-oriented movements with "Ground O," Beaser's immediate response to Sept. 11. But where Larsen's music reflects only despair, Beaser retreated to his studio and wrote a gossamer-fragile tapestry of serene harmonies, long clarinet legatos and delicate arpeggios in the piano that evoked in my ear the spray of spring rain.
Larsen's song cycle concluded a powerful recital by Mentzer in Harris Hall Wednesday, largely due to the mezzo's artistry and that of her collaborators, pianist Craig Rutenberg and violist James Dunham.
Mentzer was in gorgeous voice, as she has been for several other performances this summer. The American mezzo's sound was focused and remarkably even from top to bottom. Not a note was forced, not a sound misplaced as she brought her characteristic directness and simplicity to Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder and Debussy's Proses Lyriques. Mentzer's is not the thick Wagnerian voice, but she managed enough richness to make the feelings of sadness and longing palpable. She has a memory glitch and had to stop midway through the first song in the Debussy, but when she started up again it was like opening the door to another level, more focused, more open and clear, which she sustained for the rest of the songs.
The material is fairly gloomy stuff, however, and it got even gloomier after intermission when Dunham joined in for three songs by Frank Bridge: "Far, far from each other," "Where is it that our soul doth go?" and "Music when soft voices die." The common thread is death, and the only uplifting elements are references to nature.
Larsen's work takes the gloom even deeper. Dunham, former violist for the Cleveland Quartet, gets the opening phrase, a seven-note arc in minor mode that rises from a tonic by steps and quickly falls back onto itself. This phrase is the germ from which most of the music in the five songs grows. Most of the musical interest is in the harmonies and interplay between the viola and the piano. The viola's woozy glissandos, phrases played in straight tone without vibrato and use of tritone-harmonized double stops go a long way to create the mood of emptiness, sickness and bewilderment of those days.
Mentzer's role is to enunciate the texts. The first song recites the contents of a notepad with names of those missing and found after the collapses, notes about those who saved others, and a few phone numbers. Next comes a poem describing the towers as "two young dumb guys swaggering across the skyline," and likening them to the cannon fodder of war.
The next song, for me the best of the cycle, is to a text found posted at Grand Central Station, imploring searchers "Don't look for me anymore." It has urgency and a serenity missing in the other songs. Another song describes one who is missing, and the final song meditates on how a death affects those close.
There is no relief from the down, down, down of sadness in this work. Some of the texts have glimmers of hope. The final song, for example, contains the lines "Slowly the heart adjusts/To its new weight." There was an opportunity for Larsen to inject a ray of light in the music, but the vocal line just wanders off and never resolves, leaving us hanging.
Larsen's piece might have had a nobler effect in a different context, perhaps surrounded by other songs of dissimilar character. As it is, I for one left the concert profoundly moved but desperately in need of a drink.
Beaser's Souvenirs concluded Monday's all-modern chamber music concert. Beaser actually wrote Souvenirs in 2002 for piccolo and piano. This version, for clarinet and piano, featured Aspen favorites Joaquin Valdepeñas, principal clarinet of the Toronto Symphony, and pianist Anton Nel, who tours internationally and teaches at the University of Texas. I doubt if Beaser will ever get a better pair to perform it. They brought it to life vividly.
And a juicy work this is. Beaser is fascinated with American folk music, and uses elements of it to launch six short excursions. The folk material is most evident in "Lily Monroe" and "Cindy Redux" which make direct acknowledgments of the real folk songs on which they are based. "Cindy" is a virtual hoedown for clarinet and piano. Beaser calls "Happy Face," an original tune he wrote while in Italy in 2001 to accept the Prix de Rome, "as light as zabaglione," a perfect description.
My two favorites, however, are "Spain," based on vaguely Flamenco-like gestures in the piano and quiet riffs in the clarinet in Spanish modal scales, and the exquisite finale, "Ground O," Beaser's serene musical response to Sept. 11. This is a stunning work that deserves much play. I have a feeling musicians will pick it up eagerly.
In the more heavily promoted midweek event, Violinist Pinchas Zukerman took the Benedict Music Tent's stage with his merry band of players -- that's what they call themselves, the Zukerman Chamber Players. He looked bored and distracted as the quintet slogged their way through the Bruckner String Quartet in F and an only slightly livelier rendition of Mozart's String Quartet in C. Maybe he was discouraged by the low turnout. Most of those in attendance scattered through two of the eight seating sections. Whatever it was, his body language (dropping his bow disconsolately between phrases, gazing distractedly at the lights) proclaimed loud and clear that he wasn't really into the music.
That's too bad, because his violin sound showed more personality than the other four musicians in his group put together. At least when he pulled the bow across the strings, there was some color, some richness. The rest were pale pastels in comparison. They made absolutely no case that they even belonged with a musician of Zukerman's stature.
At intermission, several discussions I overheard centered on cellist Amanda Forsyth's gown rather than the music. The chartreuse number set off her upswept blond hair, criss-crossed her torso and displayed her legs as the cello rested between them. There was nothing really wrong with her playing, either, nor that of violinist Jessica Linnebach and violists Jethro Marks and Ashan Pillai, but Zukerman could have drafted four musicians from the festival's quartet studies program and got more focused music making.