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Friday, December 21, 2012

Concert Review: Lied, Down the Garden Path

Winterize brings Schubert outdoors.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christopher Dylan Herbert sings Schubert in Winterize.
Photo by the author.
Schubert's Winterreise is a harrowing descent into solitude, madness (and probably, hypothermia) told over 24 songs. Based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, this is the composer's crowning achievement in the field of lieder, a forbidding journey for any singer. Most performances take place in a concert or recital hall, with a formally attired singer and accompanist tracking the hapless protagonist's journey, a setting of relative comfort for audience and artists.

On Friday afternoon, New York baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert walked a different path, performing the song cycle at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as part of a city-wide arts project, Make Music New York. This particular performance, dubbed Winterize, took place in the sere, leafless grounds of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on the first day of winter. Under a chilly, leaden sky, the songs of Schubert had new meaning and weight, especially as clouds rolled in over Prospect Heights and the wind picked up.

Although singing in the cold, Mr. Herbert proved to have a rich, theatrical baritone that had no difficulty being heard in this outdoor setting. He projected the emotions behind this descent into madness, capturing the irony of the cycle's more fantastical moments and the self-flagellating character of Schubert's protagonist. From the steady tramp of "Gute Nacht" through the manic determination of later songs like Mut, this was a consistent, and sometimes harrowing performance. He managed the wide spectrum of sounds, even floating a lovely "head voice" in the more difficult passages of Die Nebensonnen and the haunting despair of Der Leiermann.

Mr. Herbert divided the walking concert into chapters, stopping at points on the path that related to the locations described in these twenty-four songs. A copper astrolabe became Schubert's fickle weather-vane. The babbling brook under the cherry orchard became the setting for Wasserflut, Auf dem Flusse and Rückblick. The charcoal-burner's hut was represented by a wisteria trellis. The performance ended at the bowl-shaped, concrete fountain on the main promenade, an ideal location for the last three songs.

The audience was a mix of Brooklyn Botanic Garden attendees, students on field trips, BBG workers, and music lovers. One woman sang along in German only to admit that she did not know who Schubert was. A small field trip stopped, the kids quiet and respectful of Mr. Herbert's art once they understood what was going on. The age ranged from very small kids with their mothers to senior citizens, all held rapt. Title cards on oak tag were held up, providing running comment on the story for those listeners who did not speak German.

The accompaniment was brought along in the form of hand-held Sony radios tuned to 94.3 FM. (Make Music Winter supplied 50 battery-powered radios for the performance.) With gleaming aerials extended, the radios picked up Timothy Long's pre-recorded accompaniment from a nearby portable broadcast station. (The tracks were stored on an iPhone.) In addition to piano, Mr. Long and sound engineer J.J. Hudson added organ, harpsichord and a solo violin for Der Leiermann, creating haunting sounds reminiscent of the whine and grind of an actual hurdy-gurdy,

As Mr. Herbert stood before the fountain, he slowly took his gloves off. Fiddled with the buttons on his coat. Closed the silver aerial on his radio, gently setting the unit on the paving-stones. Winterreise had ended in madness and death. But the final bars still hung in the grey, still air haunting the audience. As for the singer, he was on his way to Staten Island, where the piece is performed tonight at Snug Harbor. Some winter journeys never end.

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