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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Concert Review: No Bears Allowed!

Yale musicians offer "Vocal Britain" at Zankel Hall.
Thanks to the efficient Bear Patrol, William Walton's The Bear was not performed.
Image from The Simpsons © 1996 Gracie Films/20th Century Fox
The Yale in New York music series opened its 2011 New York season on Sunday night with Vocal Britain, a concert featuring rarities from English composers Benjamin Britten and William Walton. The program originally included The Bear, Walton's one-act opera  from 1967. The work was cancelled due to illness, and replaced with the much earlier (and more rare) Façade.

The concert opened with Song for the Lord Mayor's Table a short song cycle by Walton that incorporates medieval rhyme alongside traditional songs and poetry by William Blake. These six poems were sung with energy and clarion tone by mezzo-soprano Janna Baty. The work presented in its original version for piano and voice, with skillful accompaniment by Jill Brunelle.

Ms. Baty brought sardonic resignation to "Wapping Old Stairs," the story of a long relationship and the effect of infidelity upon the doing of laundry. A searching sense of mystery penetrated "Holy Thursday," the Blake poem. "The Contrast" explored the dichotomy of city life with vacations in the country. Ms. Baty pulled out the stops for "Rhyme." In this final poem, her voice rang out even as she evokes the ringing bells of London's church towers.

Chamber musicians from Yale took the stage for the next work, Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. William Purvis played the opening horn solo on a natural horn, and then picked up a valved instrument for the folowing songs. The work moves through a cycle of poems by Charles Cotton, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, Ben Jonson and John Keats, and ends with a final, quiet horn solo played from offstage.

The work was written as a study for Britten's opera Peter Grimes, and explores some of the same bleak emotional territory as that work. Tenor Dann Coakwell took the role of a skilled lieder interpreter, guiding the listener through the work's mood of twilight and disquieting darkness. The final horn part seemed to echo in the emotional void left by the poems, making a powerful, nihilistic statement.

Written in 1922, Façade sets the nonsense poetry of Edith Sitwell in a style that combines singing, sprechgesang and speech. It's a bastard cousin to Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire or Stravinsky's L'histoire de soldat, with deliberately absurd words traded back and forth between narrator John McDonough and Ms. Baty. Although the poetry proved wearing after about five selections, the skilled wind playing from the Yale musicians made this a musical journey worth taking.

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