In what was probably one of the most adventurous concerts in Williams’ history, the world-famous American composer Lucy Shelton presented a very effective program of 20th century composers Friday in Chapin Hall.
Shelton’s technique was undeniably expert, as she sang lines that leaped octaves and involved incredible rhythmic complexity, and, never out of her element for even a moment, made the whole challenging concert seem almost effortless. Overall, Shelton more than delivered what her international reputation promised.
The program began with Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro, a two-part piece by Joseph Schwantner. The first part, entitled “Shadowinnower,” was characterized by dramatic vocal lines and a fairly unengaging piano part, played by Karl Paulnack.
The second poem, “Black Anemones,” featured beautiful wave patterns composed of stacked perfect intervals, providing a purity of sound, which Shelton echoed in graceful melodic lines. This second song on the program was probably the most accessible piece that Shelton performed.
Three Early Songs by Kaiji Saariaho featured extended piano technique. The first piece, “Prelude ? Confession ? Postlude,” involved putting drinking glasses on the strings of the piano, which created a harpsichord-like sound within a particular range. This work may have been the most inaccessible on the program, due to the text’s emphasis of the harsh Finnish consonants.
Il Pleut (It Is Raining) featured a minimalist piano technique, involving a descending chromatic scale which was meant to depict the rain.
Unfortunately, although the piece itself was effectively portrayed, the metaphor didn’t work. For Du Gick, Flo umlautg (You Went, Flew), even given the very minimal text, I was left with the feeling that the piece had never really begun. It was mostly characterized by effects, all of which seemed artificial, from strumming the piano strings to glissando in the vocal line.
Philomel by Milton Babbitt, well known for his serial technique, excused the pianist from the stage and instead employed a tape played as accompaniment to the soprano. The tape featured the piece’s premiering soprano Bethany Beardslee, (resulting in a particularly otherworldly effect), along with various electronically created sounds.
John Hollander’s text is truly inventive, but I found Babbitt’s setting too reminiscent of his serial works. Often, many of the most interesting lines in the text were set for effect, rather than affect, and while the performance was impassioned, it left me with a scientific interest rather than an emotional reaction.
The next work, Lonh (From Afar) by Saariaho showed how far electronic music has progressed in the 33 years since Babbitt wrote Philomel. The tape involved chanting and various metallic-sounding instruments (which were certainly electronically generated), along with inventive uses of white noise.
This at times added a tense undercurrent to the already intense poetry, and at other times evoked the sound of a rainstorm. Employing Sprechstimme and widely spaced vocal lines, Shelton delivered a very stirring performance of these sad and questioning lines. Unfortunately, about halfway through the piece Saariaho seemed to run out of new ideas, leaving the work feeling much longer than it actually was.
The final piece, by Elliott Carter, returned to the piano-soprano format, again setting poetry by John Hollander. I found this work the most disappointing of the whole evening, especially since I have enjoyed many of Carter’s past pieces. The performance was excellent, as the audience had come to expect, but unfortunately the purely decorative piano lines came across as meaningless. The setting of the text was monotonous, employing no new rhythmic ideas and ignoring many of the most interesting ideas of the text.
Overall, every piece was performed practically to perfection, but, as with much 20th century music, remained inaccessible to much of its audience.