Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Knoxville Summer comes to Harrisburg: Autumn of 2011

While the Harrisburg Symphony will be performing two orchestral works fore and aft on this weekend’s program – Alan Hovhaness’ Mysterious Mountain and Claude Debussy’s evocation of the sea, La Mer on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum (with Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic offering a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance) – there are two other works on the program which need little introduction from me to give you any background about them but I thought it would be good to hear some performances of them if you’re not already familiar with them.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus will be singing three songs by Maurice Ravel, a rare opportunity for you to hear Shéhérazade live – and one of (I think) the most beautiful works ever written by an American composer, the nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber, a Pennsylvania-born composer originally from West Chester and who attended the Curtis School of Music as a composition, piano and voice major.

On a damp, chilly November day, perhaps thinking of some nostalgic summer music might help stave off the inevitability of winter. (I am also thinking of Erica’s aria from Barber’s opera Vanessa, “Must the Winter Come So Soon?”…)

Here is one of my favorite recordings of the work, with soprano Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s on the Nonesuch label.

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[“We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”]

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently, and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by: things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt: a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, paste-board, and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber. A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping: belling and starting, stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks: the iron whine rises on rising speed: still risen, faints: halts: the faint stinging bell: rises again, still fainter: fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.

Now is the night one blue dew. Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose. Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes . . . Parents on porches: rock and rock. From damp strings morning glones hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.

On the rough wet grass of the backyard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine . . . with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth, and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening. among the sounds of the night.

May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away. PPP After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

James Agee

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Barber adapted Agee’s text, originally a prose-poem written in 1938 that would later become the “prelude” to his novel, “A Death in the Family,” which was left unfinished at his death in 1955. It was in 1947 that Barber set Agee’s poem to music, a time when his own father’s health was deteriorating.

Agee reminisces about a childhood memory when he was five years old, the last summer his father was alive. This may have prompted Barber’s selection of the text, thinking back on the times he had spent with his father, perhaps lying on the grass at that time of evening, when people go by… moments that you may never have again but will always remember. 

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Soprano Lisa Daltirus will be singing music of Barber and Ravel with the Harrisburg Symphony: here she is singing “Visi d’arte” from Tosca (ignore the fact the first two lines of the aria have been edited from the clip).
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Also on the program are Ravel’ settings written in 1903 (around the time Debussy was beginning work on La Mer) of three poems by his friend who went by the very Wagnerian name Tristan Klingsor (taken from two Wagner operas, the misunderstood hero from Tristan und Isolde and the sorcerer from Parsifal). In fact, Ravel and Klingsor attended all 14 performances of Debussy’s revolutionary new opera, Pelleas et Melisande when it was premiered in 1902.

While inspired by the 1001 Arabian Nights, this Shéhérazade (to use the French spelling of the name as opposed to the German used in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s familiar orchestral suite) tells no stories. By turns sensuous, voluptuous and evocative in oriental images, these poems find her traveling, thinking about how she will tell her tales. The second and third poems, much shorter, are “harem vignettes,” where the focus is on youthful passers-by outside the harem walls.

Here, mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne sings Shéhérazade with Leonard Bernstein conducting the French National Orchestra.
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La flûte enchantée and L'indifférent
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Quoting from Edward Lein’s program notes about the three poems:

On the surface, Asie appears to be little more than a catalog of exotic enticements available to travelers--but the music suggests that the narrator is someone who feels trapped in a mundane existence, with the only likely escape found in reading the adventures of others.

La flûte enchantée is a straightforward depiction of romantic yearning as it relates how lovers, separated by constraints of servitude, discover that they can still form an immediate connection through music.

At first reading, L'indifférent comes across merely as a libertine eyeing a would-be conquest; but through the music one is left instead with the impression of a traveler isolated in a foreign land hoping to make any sort of human contact to overcome deep loneliness, but who seems somehow emotionally powerless to interact. It becomes almost as though Klingsor, when heard through the amplification of Ravel's music, has captured in a few lines what Thomas Mann related in his 1912 novella, Death in Venice.

You can read more about the songs at Lein's website.

-- Dick Strawser

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