A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 78: The Contraries

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Jonathan Epstein (Tchaikovsky) in Shakespeare & Company's None but the Lonely Heart. Photo by Enrico Spada.
Jonathan Epstein (Tchaikovsky) in Shakespeare & Company’s None but the Lonely Heart. Photo by Enrico Spada. 

The wise have shown us down the generations that beautiful spirits can hold two contrary ideas in the mind, carrying their weight and feeling their lightness. Through some kind of serendipity these last weeks have asked this of me. First, motion and music. I am thinking of the suave Stéphane Denève and the awe-inspiring performance of Debussy’s Jeux he conducted with the orchestral Fellows at Tanglewood. He conjures shapes which in turn conjure sounds. Rythymic complexity becomes ease. From my perch in Ozawa Hall I could see something like a swaying from the young players. Each new event in the piece, often two or three simultaneously, took over their motion. Jeux is a threesome thinly veiled as a tennis game. I preferred the choreography of the players with their master. I saw the shape of music, the form of music, the air made audible, action and response between conductor and players that was as beautiful as fine dancing. Alexandre Bloch, conducting fellow, also a conjurer, pulled silken beauties from his players, listening tenderly to Matthew Roitstein play the flute solo in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun with grace, then using his whole body to move the players to beauty. Harpist Annabelle Taubl played the Danses sacrées et profanes with mastery and gentleness. There was motion in this concert, motion with a function, a meeting of the contraries, not specifically a kind of beauty, but it becomes that.

A few days later another kind of balance had to be found, and this time the contraries were sharper and stronger. Mark Morris is able to move people around on the stage with an imagination that seems unlimited in its fecundity, but is never gaudy or pandering. In a double bill of Britten’s Curlew River and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas we saw the contraries balanced in two very different ways. In the church parable the singers moved with great simplicity, the gestures nearly unnoticed. Each seemed motivated entirely by the singing. It was not only simple; it was right. Again, from my perch I had the sense of a private occasion, a performance for the performers, a powerful shaman-like music-movement that could cause the dead to speak. The process took time. Tenor Isaiah Bell had a cool pathos in his performance of the woman whose son is conjured. His beautiful voice, its consistency especially, seemed determined enough to raise the voice of the child, the climax of the ritual. Edward Nelson sang the Ferryman (the woman must cross a river to reach the grave of her son) with clarity and strength. This amazing piece which Benjamin Britten seems to have made up out of almost nothing, no conductor, no real control over how time moves, with so much left up to the performers (as always with Britten), was not the easiest piece for the Tanglewood audience, but it was was a highlight of my summer. The final contraries, death and life, sang their agon.

None but the Lonely Heart at Shakespeare and Company tried another balancing act. It had a strong acting component in the persons of Jonathan Epstein as Tchaikovsky and Ariel Bock as Madame von Meck, but it was also a concert of Tchaikovsky’s music. There were excellent things all around in this. Most commendable was the quiet, ruminative Tchaikovsky of Mr. Epstein, a performance that stayed lyrical throughout. Ms. Bock was a cooler actor, and somehow this worked and made Madame von Meck the major mover and shaper in the relationship. Her abrupt cessation of the letters between them was a signal event in Tchaikovsky’s life. No one really knows why or even how this happened. This performance was under the auspices of the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, a group of young and fine players and singers, and yes, one dancer who formed the center of the performance. The excellent Daniel Mantei even gave us a little bit of the Nutcracker, and very well he did it too in the tiny space he had. All in all this was a pleasant, finished event with each of the performers confident and clear.

On the lighter side, and the most gentle melding of the contraries, I enjoyed Dorset Theatre Festival’s Barefoot in the Park. Neil Simon has the magic ability to make a three-act play out of one-liners. So the sense we get of it is of something that is going to please us, with a narrative along for the ride. How he makes it work I do not know, but it does. It was played with zest, and care, by Amelia White as the mother, particularly. Dorset’s playhouse has an inviting ambience. I often notice when I am there that many people stay in the theatre during the intermissions. It is a warm place with no pretension. Maybe the most beautiful contraries of all at Dorset are its comfortableness and its quality.

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