Philadelphia classical music events, discussion, and directory
Last night the Curtis Institute of Music offered its 19th student recital, a collaboration of the contemporary music group and the vocal arts program. I went not thinking I would enjoy it knowing that neither vocal nor contemporary music is exactly my cup of tea. I couldn't have been more wrong. It was one of the most remarkable and magical recitals of the current season.
This recital was different from most as all the music fit together in amazing fashion. Most recitals are kind of a hodgepodge. This one seemed like one long work with an intermission.
Featured were modern works of Richard Danielpour, Jennifer Higdon, David Ludwig, and Ned Rorem. Each of the first three is currently on the composition faculty at Curtis and each of the first three had been a Rorem Student. Rorem is an emeritus faculty.
A common theme -- death and destruction -- tied the selections together. Higdon's work, "Bentley Roses," set to music four poems about roses by James Whitcomb Riley, an Indiana poet quite well known in Indiana. What the poems really were about was overcoming despair. The other works were explicitly about death and destruction: Danielour's setting of a poem by Walt Whitman in which parents receive the news of their son having been killed in battle; the Ludwig work setting a poem by local poet Katie Ford about the wars in Iraq and Iran; and the long Rorem piece, "Aftermath" about the aftermath of 9-1-1.
Each was chamber music in the best sense, Danielpour's for baritone, viola and piano; Higdon's for mezzo-soprano, flute, and piano; Ludwig's for soprano, violin, and piano; and Rorem's for violin, cello and piano. Maybe that's why I liked it so much. Plus the singers, each of whom had magnificent voices and sang really beautifully didn't sing too loud. My ears only crackled a couple of times--maybe because they weren't singing opera scenes.
A big challenge of setting songs to music is meshing the voice with the strings and the soul of the music. I thought Rorem's work was the most successful. The others were beautiful and beautifully played, but sometimes felt like the strings were just accompanying. With Rorem, everything worked together magically.
And performing is difficult because the strings produce sound differently than the voice. When you're playing a stringed instrument with other strings, you can see them producing the sound. When you're playing with a singers you can't see it happen. Then there's the meaning of the words and the meaning of the music. A lot of people follow along with the poems as they listen. I find this distracting. It creates unwanted noise in the audience as pages are turned. Plus trying to read and digest the meaning of the words makes it very difficult to listen and digest the meaning of the music. I usually get there early and read through the poems to get a sense of what the poem is "about", then put the words aside and just listen.
The advantage of this kind of a program is that you can take the poems home and reread them as pure poetry. Some of the greatest poets in the English language were represented in this collection: Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, William Blake (THE William Blake, not my high school English teacher), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
This experience reinforced my belief that you should continually put yourself in a position where you can be surprised. If you always go a certain way somewhere, try a different route. You might learn something.
The series continues Friday night. The Stravinsky Octet is on the program for that one as well as some other stuff. I plan to be in the audience.