Beauty and the Beast: South Berkshire Concerts present Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc The Proteus Ensemble, Hai-Ting Chinn, Mezzo-Soprano

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Claude Debussy: Syrinx, Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (arranged by James Johnston)
Francis Poulenc: Le Courte paille
Maurice Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello
Arnold Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire, opus 21

Proteus Ensemble: Jennifer Grim, flute, piccolo; Gilad Harel, clarinet, bass-clarinet; Yuko Naito, violin; James Johnston, piano
Hai-Ting Chinn, mezzo-soprano (Poulenc and Schoenberg)

From Top, Clockwise: The Proteus Ensemble, Arnold Schoenberg, Hai-Ting Chinn, Mezzo-Soprano
From Top, Clockwise: The Proteus Ensemble, Arnold Schoenberg, Hai-Ting Chinn, Mezzo-Soprano

Perhaps no concert this past year could match the flavor, color, and daring of last night’s recital at Simon’s Rock College. Compositions of such wizardry, virtuosic harmonic construction – and  deconstruction – are gauntlets thrown down for none but the most capable artists. Surely, the Proteus Ensemble and mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn – forces of impeccable musicianship and intelligence – met the challenge, and provided huddled spectators who braved some awful weather an unforgettable evening. It’s hard to imagine that the ineluctably disorienting Pierrot Lunaire, Arnold Schoenberg’s expressionistic nocturnal pre-Halloween thriller, could be so light, airy, and, might I say, appealing. But when you have performers as gifted as these, it’s hard to not be beguiled – even by the occasionally hyperbolic imagery in the poetry. The fragrant melodic fragments scuttled around in Schoenberg’s score were breezy playthings in the assured hands of the musicians, and Ms. Chinn’s grasp and seemingly effortless vocal élan.

The concert’s first half allowed the tonal side of harmonic invention to state their case: irresistible and colorful French works fattened us up for the kill later in the second half. The evening opened with flutist Jennifer Grim playing Syrinx, a flute solo, by Claude Debussy. An insinuating and chromatic head motif comes, goes, and returns with improvisatory flourishes in its path. A strong case can be made of Wagner’s influence here, as Debussy’s work bears some striking similarities to the English horn solo of Tristan’s Act III. Ms Grim’s technique was flawless and her tone was bright, focused, yet warm. The work segued immediately to the opening solo of Debussy’s most famous work, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. James Johnston’s chamber reduction of Debussy’s orchestra adequately captured the highly nuanced harmonic and coloristic palette. The piano took on the important role of harps, lower strings in tremolo, and generously completed the harmonies suggested by the four remaining soloists.

No music could qualify better as ear candy than the guilty pleasures of Francis Poulenc’s works. With the childlike insouciance of Maurice Carême’s text, coupled with Poulenc’s suave, sensually tinted harmonies and irresistible Gallic wit, the song cycle La Courte paille (The Short Straw), was a perfect baffle for the dark side in the second half. The last song of the set, “Lune d’Avril,” a child’s prayer to the moon, was an especial irony before the Schoenberg. Ms Chinn and Mr Johnston conveyed just the right irony of the playful, saccharine texts bathed in Poulenc’s luxuriance.

Yuko Naito, violin, and Alberto Parrini, cello, were heard in Maurice Ravel’s sinewy Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922), which the composer dedicated to the memory of Debussy. While it might be an apostrophe to Ravel’s impressionist predecessor, its angular lines and Bartók-like effects and dissonance are clearly statements of musical independence by Ravel. Only in the second movement, Très vif, do we hear echoes of Ravel’s turn-of-the-century masterpiece, the F-Major Quartet. Ms Naito and Mr Parrini, well-matched in string color, played to the work’s virtuosity and thrilling intensity.

Pierrot Lunaire, its recondite exterior notwithstanding, is actually a work of wit, albeit a dark and expressionistic one. The gothic Symbolist poetry of Albert Giraud’s Pierrot lunaire: rondels bergamasques, translated by Otto Erich Hartleben, is a phantasmagorical sendoff of the revered poetic symbols of antiquity. The Rondel, a fourteenth-century poetic verse form, is a variation of another form, the Rondeau. The form, one used for “lighter” verse, is intentionally repetitious and sing-songy with a mere two alternating end-rhymes. Giraud truncates this form, somewhat like Swinburne, whose revival of these French forms in the late nineteenth-century was extremely influential. Historical poetic symbols of the color red (the rose, passion, Christ’s blood), the color white (chastity, virginity, death), and the moon (“The White Goddess,” the creative spirit, the eternal feminine, the mystical and sexual) are deconstructed by commedia dell’arte characters who serve up the most bizarre grotesqueries and ironies. Hartleben’s Germanification only intensified these shadow shows, stressing the saturnine and alienating implications of life, love, and religious devotion. With his transparent instrumentation Schoenberg gives the verses moth-wings, tendrils, and surreal garments. However, above all, he demands much from the human voice who must deliver the text in Schoenberg’s unique vocal idiom, Sprechstimme (“speech-voicing”), a combination of pitched notes and near microtonal inflections within those pitches. The effect is to galvanize the musical-ariose to the service of the word itself rather than for any purely musical or structural purpose. The technique, in itself, is an additional irony to the verse form, which stresses tunefulness and repetition. A virtuoso vocalist is required here who, as well, has a firm grasp of vocal theatre. Ms Chinn made each song something to behold. Her colorations, from the dark-hued and husky to the flutelike, conveyed the ever-changing capriciousness and coy equivocation of this work. Her striking stage presence, her breathtaking mastery of the frequently caustic vocalizations, and her interpretive insight into vivid Symbolist prosody placed her visionary reading at the top of a half-century of performances. Those who have heard this work from the LP days with Bethany Beardslee, or more recently, with the late, great Jan DeGaetani, knew that Schoenberg’s early twentieth-century bête-noir was never sung better than tonight.

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