Saturday, February 24, 2007

An Evening of Songs

More reviews by Jaime Robles can be found at Repeat Performances.

Nora Lennox Martin, vocals
Jerry Kuderna, piano
January 26, 2007

This second concert in the Berkeley Arts Festival could easily have been titled “Flowers and the Blossoming of Modernism,” for the work featured, except for a couple of forays into the postmodern, fell under one of those two headings. Pianist Jerry Kuderna presented a selection of contemporary piano pieces from Schoenberg to Helps and accompanied soprano Nora Lennox Martin in a selection of florally thematic songs, written primarily by twentieth-century composers.

Kuderna began the concert with Prelude and Song from Robert Helps’ 1977 Suite for Piano, which was later titled In Retrospect (Op. 26). This is a composer he clearly feels great sympathy with, for he negotiated the piece with emotional sensitivity and care.

Martin next sang Milhaud’s Catalogue de Fleurs. Because it imitates a flower catalog, the text of these short songs has a flatness that makes interpretation a challenge:

The Aurora Begonia has a full double blossom,
Apricot, tinged with coral; very pretty color;
It is rare and unusual.

The music supports a certain loveliness but beyond that it’s up to the singer to individualize each of the seven flowers and then to tie them together in an ending whose irony—“The price list will be sent to you by post”—could easily undo the charm that has gone before. Martin uses her opportunities well, spanning the host of traits ascribable to flowers from demure to seductive, and shows her ability to handle humor with lightness. Because of her youth, her voice has the freshness necessary to give the song cycle a springtime warmth and airiness.
Kuderna completed the first half with a piano piece by Lani Allen, “Soquel Sunrise,” and Alban Berg’s landmark Sonata for Piano, Op. 1. Kuderna flew through this formidable piece, bringing its agitated and wandering center to a satisfying completion.

The second half of the program was devoted primarily to vocal music and began with Fauré’s “Les roses d’Ispahan.” This bit of late Romantic orientalia with its seductive melody and soft, rhythmically mesmerizing accompaniment was especially good for revealing the sweetness of Martin’s soprano voice. It was followed by two pieces by Respighi—“Notte” and “Nebbie”—that showed the darker side of love lost, ominously connected to despair and death.

Kuderna followed with Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstuecke, and he gave the lyricism in these brief pieces an interesting quality that bordered on the light and quixotic, while at the same time suggesting a seriousness, a “reaching for,” as if the composer were listening to the tick of a different neurological clock just on the other side of the perceivable.

Kuderna and Martin then presented five of Schoenberg’s Das Buch der haengenden Gaerten—1, 2, 5, 9 and 10. These pieces taken from Stefan George’s atmospheric tracings of desire—realized and lost—are notable as Schoenberg’s first clear realization into atonality, and it is interesting that Schoenberg was able to find his way into this sense of sound through the poetic word. The first song, which begins with a simple direct pattern startlingly disrupted by a single dissonant note, establishes not only the world of atonality but the disruption of an easily definable inner state: a strangeness compatible with the symbolist text as it defines the imaginary world of the poet’s Babylonian hanging gardens.

As the musical agitation continues, the poetic line establishes itself above the music as a separate “other” emotional place whose boundaries are drawn by a voice very close to spoken word. The poetry is fairly regular rhymed iambic pentameter and Schoenberg set it very carefully, recognizing not only the line breaks but also delineating between full stops and enjambed lines, or lines that continue on without syntactical break.

Despite that, the listener is never aware of metrics, rhyme or line breaks—so subtle is the treatment.

Martin, with extreme sensitivity to the text, has followed Schoenberg’s lead and further interprets the vocal line in a way suggestive of how Stephan George’s own readings have been described by the writer-translator Rudolf Kassner:

… murmuring word after word, avoiding emotion, as if he were reading magic spells or prayers in language that no one needed to understand, because it is holy and designed for purely magical effects.

Regrettably, only five of the 15 songs were sung, which leaves this duo with a mission for the future.

The program closed with a wonderful selection of four blues songs by contemporary composer Logan Skelton. These difficult songs, three of which were settings of poems by e.e. cummings, showed a range from exquisite to just plain fun vocal gymnastics, as Martin used her voice to dive, dip, slide, and shimmy while telling us stories about Jimmy’s “goil” and a woman who stores her life savings in her gold fillings.

Nora Martin not only has a beautiful voice, but she uses it deftly, assuredly and with great joy. She abandons herself to the music and to the moment. Further, her great sensitivity to text—a trait unusual in many singers, who are often concerned more with tone and phrasing—allows her to make the most of the emotional sense of words.

Martin and Jerry Kuderna, as able accompanist, make an excellent duo, exploring and presenting the vocal intricacies of contemporary music.