Celebrations in Song: Christine Brewer and Craig Rutenberg at Tannery Pond, July 2, 2011

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“When I have Sung My Songs to You”
An Evening of American Music
Tannery Pond Concerts, Season 2011, Concert III 

Gian Carlo Menotti: Canti Della Lontananza
Alan Louis Smith: Vignettes: Letters from George to Evelyn based on correspondence of a World War II Bride

Virgil Thomson: Piano Portraits (solo piano),”My Long Life
Charles Ives: Circus Band, At the River, Memories
Ernest Charles: When I Have Sung My Songs To You
A. Walter Kramer: “Now, Like a Lantern
Harold Arlen: Happiness is a Thing Called Joe

Christine Brewer, soprano
Craig Rutenburg, piano

Composers: Gian Carlo Menotti, Alan Louis Smith, Virgil Thomson, Charles Ives

A vague sense of déjà vu pervaded the evening. A little more than a year ago, I attended a Memorial Day concert at Tannery Pond (reviewed here) to hear the remarkable Brentano Quartet perform Britten, Schumann and Beethoven.  Later on that season,mezzo- soprano Vivica Genaux with Craig Rutenberg performed the little known works of Pauline Viardot.  Tannery’s Independence Day concert seemed to conflate those experiences with a suite of reflective and commemorative American offerings, some of which being quite obscure, with a reappearance of Mr. Rutenberg this time featuring Christine Brewer, one of the great operatic  voices of our time.  Remembrance, subtly woven throughout the program, began with a celebration of the centenary of Menotti’s birth. Later, Ives’s songs captured the passing of small-town American innocence. Virgil Thomson’s witty caricatures remind us of our friendships; and finally, in Alan Smith’s song cycle, the loss of life and love in the time of war is vividly portrayed.

The intimate ambiance of Tannery Pond might seem a challenge for the very ample vocal carriage of Ms. Brewer who we associate with Strauss (as Ariadne) and Wagner (as Isolde). However, Ms. Brewer, who is as home singing Lieder, has consummate control of her dynamic apparatus. Her soprano demonstrated a luscious and evocative blend of dramatic and lyric elements.  Her pitch-perfect intonation, golden lows, and radiant highs provided passion even during those moments when some of the repertory itself seemed casual and understated. Concentrating on American composers, both in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, opens many options for a singer, but Ms. Brewer chose overtly lyrical works, all unabashedly seated in tonality. Though conservative and traditionally inclined, the program undoubtedly gave her an expressive platform for the nostalgic mood of the recital.  Ives can be a wild card in any vocal recital, since his 114 Songs included “oto-fracturing” pieces like Majority, and, From “Paracelsus,” which are hardly performed today. Instead, as was the case in the 2010 Glimmerglass preview recital I attended a year ago, there seems to be an attempt to feature the lighter, sentimental early works and thus present a denatured, easy-listening sort of Ives.  The composer himself, throughout the original publication, cast self-deprecating aspersions to these pieces; however, truth be told, they are delightful to hear, and the growing popularity of songs like “We’re sitting in the Opera House” (from Memories), and The Children’s Hour attest to the thorny ear-stretching Ives surviving today as a post-modern Amy Beach. Of course, At the River has a dense and occasionally dissonant accompaniment. But, played slowly, as in tonight’s recital, and with lots of piano arpeggiation, the traditional hymn’s harmonies are, well, easy on the ears.  Ms. Brewer related a story about her first performance of this piece in which her Southern-Baptist grandmother chided her for singing so many “wrong notes.” Ives would be amused.  In Memories (A. Very Pleasant and B. Rather Sad), the breathless and breakneck Opera House number requires whistling mid-phrase: Ms. Brewer projected that well when she enlisted pairs of her fingers to help.

The Circus Band is an easy winner, being a prototypical band march with lots of purposely placed phrase displacements added for laughs. Ives sneaks in his dissonances for the piano when imitating drum fanfares.

Gian Carlo Menotti, who was born just a century ago this week, was one of the most skillful vocal composers of the post WWII generation. Italian born, he spent a good deal of his life in the U.S. with his partner and fellow composer, Samuel Barber. The seven Italian-language songs featured tonight were commissioned by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in 1957, and demonstrate Menotti’s gifts, as well as his musical eclecticism. The major-minor oscillations recall on of Menotti’s Italian progenitors, Ferruccio Busoni; the piquant harmonic changes and textures reminded one, at times, of Hugo Wolf’s Lieder.  Ms. Brewer illuminated each piece with a certain vocal color or dramatic turn.  One regrets, however, the lack of printed texts and translations for the audience and a listing of individual author of each song.

Christine Brewer (Photo: Christian Steiner)

The most compelling vocal work of the evening was Alan Louis Smith’s Vignettes: Letters from George to Evelyn, a cycle which premiered in 2002 in honor of Phyllis Curtin’s eightieth birthday. A series of letters written by First Lieutenant George Honts to his new bride, Evelyn, become in Mr. Smith’s settings, subtle and tender miniatures following the course of an optimistic and blithe spirited newly-wed to an inexorable mortal fate, ironically, during the last days of the European theater in WWII. Cleverly, as settings for soprano voice, we hear George’s words in the reflection of his love’s voice and reaction as she reads his words. The letters begin, “Dearest Darling,” without piano accompaniment, allowing Ms. Brewer’s vocal blush of ardent anticipation to ring forth.  While the music is clearly tonal, and the word painting is applied in classical ways, Mr. Smith’s cycle comfortably stands alongside other composers today who embrace lyricism as a primary requisite for song. “You will remember me, won’t you..,” is passionate and haunting without nineteenth century histrionics or sentiment, yet achieves expressive force without forcing expressionism. The mood of letters, while becoming more despairing in the grim reality of warfare, at times musically painted as dirges, always rearticulates his love for Evelyn (“I’m still the luckiest guy..”) as his benison for survival. In one memorable section, a “downpour of rain” in a sort of Debussyan chaos closes with an abrupt “etcetera,” leaving us to only imagine George’s condition or state. A Western Union telegraph, accompanied by a monotonous, inexorable and baleful series of detached notes – the teletype mechanism, perhaps – notifies Evelyn of George’s death; here Ms. Brewer bursts out the sender’s impersonal obscure salutation, “The Secretary of War,” with a shattering and reverberant fortissimo. This moment, when Evelyn’s inchoate anticipation of the letter’s stark message, laced with the abhorrent bromides of government bureaucracy, was a stark emotional climax to the evening’s more relaxed and wistful mood.  Ms. Brewer’s cry of anguish echoed throughout  New Lebanon, it seemed, and unlike the faint thunders of fireworks from afar, the tragedy and transiency of human life and love was more vividly palpable here than the mere ceremonial spectacles of imagined battles. Both Ms. Brewer and Mr. Rutenberg made this work an unforgettable and thrilling centerpiece.

Virgil Thomson, a composer lesser known than his other American contemporaries who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, is receiving something of a revival these days.  His film scores for The River and The Plough That Broke the Plains have received notable exposure in the concert hall and on public radio. Associated with Aaron Copland, Paul Bowles, Ned Rorem, and Leonard Bernstein, he was best-known as a composer for voice collaborating  with Gertrude Stein on two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, a Thomson specialist, has written an appreciation in Virgil Thomson, Composer on the Aisle in 1997, which highlighted both Thomson’s music as well as music criticism during his term as critic for the New York Herald-Tribune.  Mr. Rutenberg, who is renowned as an accompanist and Director of Music Administration at the Metropolitan Opera, became good friends with Thomson in the 1960s and is in the process of recording the complete piano works of Thomson.  Most of these compositions, I’m sure, have never been recorded before.  However, eight of his “musical portraits” – short, epigrammatic sketches of artists and friends – were popularly received in 1928. Thomson would go on to write 150 of these (including one of Mr. Rutenberg himself).  In tonight’s recital, Mr. Rutenberg performed the portraits of Carrie Stettheimer (a dollhouse builder and collector), painter Pablo Picasso, Mlle. Favie Alvarez de Toledo (a young aristocratic girl), art essayist Willy Eisenhart, and Karen Brown Waltuck (co-owner of the former restaurant, Chanterelle).  The styles of these elliptical pieces vary from neo-baroque and neo-classical, to minimalist.  Influences of Erik Satie, Karol Szymanowski, and Aaron Copland can be heard.  Except for the clearly bitonal and geometric sounding Picasso portrait, I suspect no one present could judge the appropriateness of Thomson caricatures of the other personalities.  Yet, Mr. Rutenberg  gave us ample evidence of Thomson’s wit and musical fluency in these tiny works.  Far more musically convincing, however, was the song “My Long Life.” Taken from The Mother of Us Alland written in a simple folk idiom, it is a dignified and articulate hymn of affirmation of “life over strife.”

Pianist Craig Rutenberg (Photo: Christian Steiner)

After a few sentimental parlor songs by Arthur Kramer and Ernest Charles, the evening concluded with Harold Arlen’s favorite “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.” These three works were recorded by Ms. Brewer in her CD, Echoes of Nightingales Encores as sung by Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel and Eleanor Steber. Ms. Brewer’s voice, even when handed popular repertory, never degraded to that of a salon chanteuse, but remained utterly clear, tonally precise, impeccably shaped and expressive.  Mr. Rutenberg demonstrated once again how the accompanist’s art lies in how keenly one listens and helps shape the vocalist’s intentions.  For the encore, Ms. Brewer chose another song from her album, Paul Sargent’s The Moon is Aloft. Light fare? Yes, but a palliative to the emotional storm of Smith’s Vignettes.

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