By the time you read this, it may be well into November, and the frost may be on the pumpkin. But travel back to Labor Day weekend, and a sultry Sunday on a barge. I attended a concert presented by Bargemusic, whose venue floats near the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Brooklyn side. Often, pieces of music turn into barcarolles—whether they started as barcarolles or not—as the waves rock the concert hall.
Bargemusic has a number of series, one of which is termed “Here and Now.” (That could be “Hear and Now,” if you’re in a punny mood.) This series showcases contemporary composers. And on this particular Sunday, there were six of them.
Opening the concert was Evensong (A Suite of Nocturnes), by Adolphus Hailstork. He is an American born in 1941. Evensong is for violin and cello, leaving a pianist out of it—no need. Our violinist was Mark Peskanov, who doubles as the chief of Bargemusic. The cellist was Julian Schwarz, whose bio says, “Heralded from a young age as a cellist destined to rank among the greatest of the 21st century . . .” That is a heckuva burden, I would think.
Much of Evensong is very American, classically American, reminding you of hymns, Copland—other things. The music made me nostalgic, in a sweet, satisfying way. I must say that I found the work too long. But, as regular readers know, I often think that about new works, and other works, so this should be “factored in.”
Do composers go on too long or am I short on patience? I like to think the former, but others may disagree.
The concert continued with songs by another American composer, Roger Stubblefield. These songs—three—are headed Reveries. Stubblefield has set some killer poems, including one by Judy Katz, which contains these lines: “if, in three days, a cut peony can turn itself,/ from fist to flower to flamingo, what isn’t possible,/ for this balled up heart?”
Stubblefield’s songs, I would describe as “easy listening,” but that sounds like a put-down, and I mean no put-down.
Stubblefield’s songs, I would describe as “easy listening,” but that sounds like a put-down, and I mean no put-down. These songs go down easy, which is welcome. Like the Hailstork work, they are tinged with Americanism, or Americanness.
Singing was Sophie Delphis, described in her bio as a “Franco-American mezzo-soprano.” That is a musical phrase: “Franco-American mezzo-soprano.” Also musical is the singer’s name, “Sophie Delphis.” Both parts of the name have two syllables, with a stress on the first one, and both have “ph” in the middle. Nicely planned. The pianist was Marc Peloquin, and the two, together, made an excellent case for Reveries.
Did the songs need one? No, but it’s nice to have an excellent case, especially for a world premiere, which this was.
Mr. Peloquin stayed on the stage for a new piano sonata of Roberto Sierra—No. 9. Mr. Sierra has written a variety of works. In the past couple of years, he has been on a piano-sonata jag. No. 9 is fast, clean, and pianistic. Haydn would acknowledge and appreciate these traits. There is a lot of unison playing in this sonata. Also, it is jazzy, peppy, propulsive. I thought of some mid-century American composers, including Persichetti. I admire those guys. Sierra’s new sonata, as I recall, ends with a furious downward unison scale.
Did Marc Peloquin make an excellent case for the piece? He did.
Scott Wheeler is a friend of mine, so I will not comment on his new songs. I can say, however, that I hope you will have a chance to hear them. Three of the songs are grouped under the heading Lies I Tell Myself. The poems are by Eva H. D. (as she is known). Here is one striking line: “the TV flailing in silence.” I think I know just what that amazingly oxymoronic line means.
The composer himself was at the piano, and his singer was the soprano Sarah Chalfy. She has one foot in the classical world and one foot in the cabaret world. A worthy stance.
All the works on the program were brand-new, save one: Philip Glass’s Songs and Poems for Solo Cello. They were written about fifteen years ago and were recorded by Wendy Sutter—who was our cellist on the barge. There are seven songs and poems in the set. Ms. Sutter played four of them. How can you tell which is a song and which is a poem? In remarks to the audience, Ms. Sutter confided that she has never known.
She played the pieces like she owned them. She was strong, subtle, virtuosic. She applied just the right doses of rubato. Mr. Glass has a powerful advocate for those pieces.
“And now for something completely different,” went a phrase of the Monty Python troupe. The Bargemusic concert ended with Three Poems from Kanginshu, by Hiroya Miura. “Kanginshu” refers to a collection of Japanese songs and ballads, compiled early in the sixteenth century. Miura’s new work is for shamisen and cello. The former is a traditional instrument having three strings. Our performers were a pair who style themselves “Duo Yumeno”: Yoko Reikano Kimura, shamisen, and Hikaru Tamaki, cello. Ms. Kimura sang as well as played.
For years, I and others have written about the encounter between Chinese music and Western music—and the blending of the two. (I have spoken of “the twain, meeting.”) Here was a chance to look in on, or listen in on, Japan.
It was hot—“sultry,” is the word I used—on that Sunday of Labor Day weekend. It was sweltering—absolutely sweltering—inside the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine about a week later. The recitalist, David Briggs, said that he had the best seat in the house—for he was at the organ console, which had a fan on top of it. The rest of us suffered. But we did not suffer from the music or from Mr. Briggs.
He is indeed an organist and his recital had a title: “German Symphonists.” Really? Really. They were Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Schumann.
He is a brainy, elegant Brit, this Briggs.
Mr. Briggs is an artist-in-residence at the cathedral. Prior to his recital, he gave a talk to the audience, and he was also the author of the evening’s program notes. He is a brainy, elegant Brit, this Briggs. Right out of central casting. Born in 1962, he studied at King’s College, Cambridge, and he also studied in Paris with Jean Langlais, that famed organist and teacher. Briggs is a composer and a transcriber—a prolific transcriber for the organ, including of symphonies. He has transcribed most of the symphonies of Mahler.
He had a pandemic project, namely the transcription of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, the “Rhenish.” In his pre-recital talk, he spoke movingly about this symphony. According to the notes I scribbled—and I hope I heard things right—the “Rhenish” was the favorite symphony of Briggs’s father, John, who played the cello. Both father and son especially prized the recording of the symphony made by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. John Briggs died when David was rather young.
“It is my dearest hope,” said the organist, “that he would enjoy the transcription”—what David has done with the “Rhenish.”
His recital started with Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata No. 3 in A major. It is a fairly brief piece, in just two movements, the second of which has a wonderful marking: Andante tranquillo. The music sounds that way, too. After Mendelssohn came Brahms—three of the Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122, that he wrote at the end of his life. It’s touching to think of Brahms spending his last weeks composing these organ pieces, of a religious character. The three that Briggs played included “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.” Brahms’s version does not sound much like the famous carol, arranged by Praetorius in the early 1600s.
On the subject of transcriptions, let me note that Erich Leinsdorf—best known as a conductor—transcribed Brahms’s “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” for orchestra. Transcription works both ways, and all ways.
I said, with my usual poetic grace, that it was like listening to an orchestra in a toilet bowl.
As for David Briggs’s playing, it is highly accomplished. I have to say that I find the acoustics of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine frustratingly muddy. It can be hard to discern notes. Years ago, I attended a performance of the New York Philharmonic in the cathedral. I said, with my usual poetic grace, that it was like listening to an orchestra in a toilet bowl.
Very elevated—nothing like what I have just said—is Briggs’s transcription of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3. It may help that the symphony is in E flat, a grateful key for the organ. As I listened, it occurred to me that this transcription sounds like an organ work—a work written for organ—rather than a transcription. This must be what a transcriber aims for, ideally. He has not merely grafted one thing onto another thing. The pièce de resistance is the fourth movement, the penultimate movement. It is cathedral-like, building with mystery and awe. I thought of a later symphonist, Bruckner, who was an organist whose symphonies have been compared to cathedrals.
John Briggs, no doubt, would have been pleased and moved, and so, I’m sure, was the audience gathered on this evening.
We often speak of an “eclectic” recital program. There’s eclectic and then there’s eclectic—and a recital by Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano, and Sophia Muñoz, piano, was super-eclectic. It was given at the Park Avenue Armory. A song recital, in that cavernous space? No, the recital took place in the Armory’s boardroom. That is an attractive and right place for a song recital.
“Right”? Music and musicians deserve a venue of the appropriate size, the right size. More and more, I’m convinced of this. The size of a venue makes a difference. Could Yo-Yo Ma fill Madison Square Garden? With people, I mean? Maybe. But it would be a lousy place for a cello recital.
D’Angelo and Muñoz traversed a variety of periods, styles, and moods. This was a classical program, to be sure. But some songs were pop-like, or on the border between classical and pop—in a no-man’s-land (but not a bad land). The evening began with the medieval: something by Hildegard von Bingen. There were songs by Mendelssohn and Schumann—Fanny and Clara, not Felix and Robert. There were songs by Schoenberg (Arnold).
Listening to his songs, I had a thought: if he had decided on a different course, and devoted a substantial amount of his time to the composing of Lieder, could he have entered into the pantheon with Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and the rest? I would not have bet against him.
Also on the program were Florence Price, the American who lived from 1887 to 1953, and Rebecca Clarke, an Englishwoman—later an American—who lived from 1886 to 1979. Two of the Clarke songs were settings of Yeats: “The Cloths of Heaven” and “Down by the Salley Gardens.” Where the first poem is concerned, it’s hard for some of us not to think of the setting by Thomas Dunhill—one of the best songs in the entire British repertory. Where the second is concerned, it’s hard not to think of the folk setting, in the Britten arrangement.
Copland was represented, by three of his Dickinson songs. How about Randy Newman, of “Short People” and other fame? (The King’s Singers recorded a fabulous classical arrangement of “Short People.”) The Newman song on this evening was “Wandering Boy”—affecting. Other living composers were Missy Mazzoli, Cecilia Livingston, and Sarah Kirkland-Snider.
The pianist, Sophia Muñoz, works at the Komische Oper Berlin. By the evidence of her recital with Emily D’Angelo, she is a thoughtful, skillful, conscientious musician. “She speaks English, German, French, Italian, and is studying Polish,” says her bio. There is a polyglot Muñoz who does not speak Spanish.
There is a cleanness—an unfuzziness—about her singing.
Ms. D’Angelo is from Toronto. She has an assortment of gifts. Begin with an excellent, glowing voice. She can make it heavier or lighter. It is a versatile voice, for a versatile singer. In technique, she is very secure. There is a cleanness—an unfuzziness—about her singing. I would like to hear her in Mozart. D’Angelo is a chameleon, a good thing to be, when you’re a recitalist. She can wrap her voice richly around some Lied. She can also be matter-of-fact, conversational. She has a sense of the blues. Somewhere along the line, I thought, “She could make a killing in pop singing, if she wanted to.”
One more point: oddly enough—we could explore this at length—it is not easy to sing in English, even for native speakers. I always thought that Marilyn Horne was a model in English-language singing. Her English is so natural, when she sings (and talks). Nothing is overemphasized or underemphasized. I found the same true of Emily D’Angelo.
This was a recital of considerable distinction. Also, it was brief—just over an hour. This struck me as the right length, in a right-size hall.
Into another hall, Carnegie, came the Teatro Real, i.e., the Royal Opera of Madrid. More specifically, its orchestra was on hand—though one of the two soloists was a soprano. The program was all-Spanish, and it included some greatest hits: two suites from The Three-Cornered Hat (Falla), for example. One of the suites began the program; the other ended it. There were some offbeat items too—such as the prelude to El bateo, a zarzuela (a Spanish operetta) by Federico Chueca.
The crowd was boisterous and appreciative—and not your usual concert-hall crowd. They applauded at funny places. They kind of wandered in and out at will. There were lots of cellphones in the air. But everyone was well-meaning. Festive.
On the podium was Juanjo Mena, a distinguished Spaniard, among whose teachers was Celibidache. He is a compact, economical, mature conductor. I do not mean to suggest that he is boring. He is plenty stylish. He happens to be a very smooth dancer, on the podium. He never danced to show off, however. He was communicating something to the orchestra.
That prelude to El bateo? It’s like the Spanish equivalent of the Viennese music you hear from the Philharmonic on New Year’s morning. From Mena’s baton—and feet?—it had wonderful panache.
Besides our soprano, there was a piano soloist. With the orchestra, he played Nights in the Gardens of Spain (again, Falla). That pianist was Javier Perianes, previously unknown to me. I’m glad to know him now. He was fluid, limpid, colorful, tidy. He is an exceptionally relaxed pianist, at home at the keyboard, sweating nothing.
The soprano? She was Sabina Puértolas, billed in her bio as “one of the most international Spanish sopranos.” What does that mean? I think it means that she is among the Spanish sopranos who work the most widely. In any event, she sang zarzuela arias, and she sang them with sparkling coloratura and idiomatic charm. She went way, way above the staff, high, high up—accurately. Like a Spanish Queen of the Night.
She went way, way above the staff, high, high up—accurately. Like a Spanish Queen of the Night.
For an encore—an unbilled aria—she sang maybe the biggest zarzuela hit of all, “Carceleras,” from Las hijas del zebedeo, by Ruperto Chapí. De los Angeles used to slay with this number. Caballé slew with it. And so did Señora Puértolas.
Maybe I could finish with a memory—of a conversation with Plácido Domingo. The only one I’ve ever had. He had recently recorded an opera by Albéniz: Pepita Jiménez. A few years before that, he had recorded another Albéniz opera, Merlin. I was glad to know some opera by this composer, as I told Domingo. Albéniz is known mainly for his piano music. Alicia de Larrocha, for example, took his Iberia all around the world. Domingo told me that he was never a good enough pianist to learn Iberia. (I hadn’t known that he played the piano at all.) But he did learn Albéniz’s Suite española, which is a little easier than Iberia.
The Teatro Real program in Carnegie Hall included a little suite from Iberia. For me, those pieces lose something, when they are taken from the piano and given to the orchestra. Maybe it’s because I have de Larrocha in my ear, ever and always.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 3, on page 47
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