Sunday, August 19, 2012

edgy – or over the edge?

Friday night found me in my usual seat at the Teatro Angela Peralta.  For the second of the Atlanta Chamber Players’ performances.

When I initially looked at the night’s program, I was a bit surprised.  The first half of the program was Ernst von Dohnányi’s Serenade in C major (for String Trio) Op. 10 and Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Trio in A minor Op. 114.

Two trios from the late romantic period.  That seemed a bit redundant.  But whoever constructed the program had a brilliant idea.

Even though the two trios are from the same musical period, they are quite different in character.  And yet they complement each other.

Both composers helped to revitalize chamber music.  The symphony with its large orchestras and egalitarian performance spaces had shunted chamber music aside.  And the few pieces that were performed had become almost hagiographic.

Dohnányi reinterpreted the classical serenade both in form and substance.  The serenade gives performers an opportunity to show both their technique and their ability to communicate the composer’s spirit to the audience.

The players did just that.  Some modern chamber groups have adopted a physical style that could be mistaken for a beach volleyball match.  The players avoided that temptation and allowed their technique to convey the emotional appeal of the piece.

I prefer their approach. As entertaining as it is to watch string players look as if they are in the terminal stages of ADHD, musicians who realize music is about the music (and not about the musicians) are to be commended.

The violin, viola, and cello then retired from the stage to be replaced by the piano, clarinet, and cello (again) for the Brahms piece.  A piece that shows why Brahms is considered to be one of the musical geniuses of the the nineteenth century.

He resuscitated an ossified musical form by retaining the classical structure, but adding his own innovations.  The result is essentially a new musical form in familiar clothing.

The clarinet is evocative of Mozart’s clarinet work in Serenade in B flat K. 361.  Simple.  Plaintive.  Haunting.  Mixing simply with the shifting of themes to cello and then piano.

And the players nailed the piece.  An Atlanta home run.

That brought us to the second half of the program.  The reason we were presented with chamber music as it was revived in the late romantic period.

Chamber music was originally an art form developed primarily for small groups to play to assembled nobles and aristocrats in drawing rooms.  We are short of aristocrats and drawing rooms these days as a result of the two revolutions -- the French and the Industrial.

But, just as Dohnányi and Brahms gave new life to the form in the late nineteenth century, twentieth century composers have attempted their own revival acts.  And those atonal pieces are often presented at these festivals to allow the players and the audience to show their sophisticated sides.

For Friday’s performance,the contemporary offering was George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae

The musical director for the players took five or ten minutes to explain what the flute, cello, and piano (yes, it was a full night of trios) would be performing   I cannot do justice to her introduction, but I will try to convey the substance.

Crumb wrote the piece in 1971 after hearing a tape of humpback whale song.  The stage is to be lit only by blue light to evoke life under the sea.  The three instruments are to be amplified to signify the piece is larger than life.

And the players are to wear masks to dehumanize them and put the emphasis on the music.  The dehumanization also emphasizes the scope of the music -- the world without man.

I tried to write that as non-ironically as I could -- because both the musical director and the clarinetist (from Venezuela, who was translating the introduction into Spanish) were having a bit of trouble disguising their own smirks.

A piece from the 70s based on whale song carries the weight of its own irrelevancy.  And seems even more dated than any piece from the 1700s. 

Of course, postmodern pieces like this now run head on into our post-postmodern thinking where we can see that the pretense cannot be taken seriously. It is no more trendy than love beads and bell-bottom trousers.

The blue light and the masks merely call attention to the fact that the presentation is a human construct attempting to show the grandeur of nature while calling everyone’s attention to the humans that perform the piece and the human who composed it,

Having said that, the players handled a demanding piece with expertise.  It is hard to say much more than that about a piece that demands almost idiosyncratic style.

I confess the composition left me a little unsatisfied -- as if we were served the soup with no main course.

But I solved that by waddling over to Hacienda Guadalupe for supper.  Stuffed quail followed by a guava flan.  Two foods I could never find in Melaque.  On the other hand, I have never left 440 pesos on the dinner table in Melaque, either.  

I am looking forward to occupying my seat on Sunday afternoon -- for the last performance of the festival this season.  If all goes well, I should also have a few audience observations for you.

After all, what fun is it to go the theater without a little bit of gossip?


Felipe Zapata said...

And the few pieces that were performed had become almost hagiographic.

You took the words right out of my mouth.

Steve Cotton said...

Ah.  The subtext of comments.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

I don't know any of my friends who have eaten at Hacienda Guadalupe or Rosewood - both exist for the Mexico City tourists who seem to have way more money for dining then we Americans.
Glad you enjoyed the dinner however.

Steve Cotton said...

It always reminds me a bit of San Fransisco.  But, like most San Miguel restaurants, the food does not quite meet the expectation.