HEROINES AND HERETICS at Merkin Hall
Conductor Ian Niederhoffer likes to ignore convention. In recent years, his Parlando Chamber Orchestra has established itself as a serious player in the New York classical scene with its presentations of lesser-known and modern pieces. A conductor and founder of Parlando, Niederhoffer has demonstrated a talent for cultivating and curating unique and compelling programs. This week’s concert at Merkin Hall (on Marathon Sunday!) was titled “Heroines and Heretics” and featured pieces focusing on some of the most important women in music history: 11th century German Benedictine abbess ( and polymath, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, visionary, yada, yada, yada…) Hildegard von Bingen; the patroness of France, the Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc (who was the subject of more than 500 musical compositions); and the most popular bad girl in the operatic repertoire: Carmen.
As is his tradition, Maestro Niederhoffer opened the concert with brief details of the pieces presented. His audiences have come to expect and look forward to the delightful elucidations on the plays, as Niederhoffer possesses a relaxed, natural, and storytelling gift that puts audiences at ease. He does not expound, delivering methodical, detailed, scholarly explanations, but rather direct, understandable and entertaining, almost anecdotal insights. This is an extremely wise and useful convention on his part, as his programs often include very difficult pieces. (Parlando!)
And this program was no exception.
At first glance, Bingen, Joan of Arc and Carmen may seem to have little in common, but Niederhoffer neatly linked them, explaining that their uniqueness and exceptionalism resulted in each of their various struggles and the corresponding hostility (misogyny) to they faced – Hildgard and Joan in life, Carmen in art.
“Rex noster promptus est” by Hildegard von Bingen started the program. Usually heard in vocal arrangement, the Parlando version was a stunning, austere string arrangement that produced an almost immediate hypnotic effect. The piece was written as a response to the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a Christian holiday in remembrance of the massacre of newborn babies in Bethlehem by King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus. The children killed were considered by the early Church to be the first martyrs, hence the dark and contemplative nature of the work.
When performed by strings (as opposed to vocals), the work possesses less of a “religious chant” feeling and a more secular quality. The work begins with a buzzing note below the melody that immediately evokes an almost Middle Eastern flavor. In turn, a cello, then a second cello and then a double bass join, passing the melody and deepening the texture and resonance. This reviewer had never heard this particular arrangement and contacted Maestro Niederhoffer to ask him for the province of the arrangement and, unsurprisingly, the conductor provided a concise answer: “The original arrangement was by Marianne Richert Pfau, but we flipped some of the octaves and the instrumentation We actually experimented a bit in the rehearsals to see what would work best for the bass drones For some of the rehearsals we did harmonics, and d Others we played with open strings or different octaves.
And Parlando made it his own. Under Niederhoffer’s supple but languorous hand, the piece took on a transcendental, evocative and moving quality.
The second piece on the program was a composition by African-American composer Julius Eastman. The score for the piece was lost after the composer’s repeated battles with drug addiction left him homeless and his estate in chaos. Cellist Clarice Jensen painstakingly reconstructed a transcription of the work from archival video of the work’s only live performance in 1981. In the original format, composer Eastman delivered a maniacal intro, similar to a sermon, to music (composed for 10 cellos). The prelude would have been a complete improvisation, featuring the names of the saints (and Archangel Michael) whom Joan of Arc invoked during her trial. Whether or not this is a note-for-note melodic composition is unclear. Nevertheless, all subsequent performances have included the prelude as the composer originally delivered it.
“When they ask you, speak boldly,” St. Joan claimed, and that’s exactly what tenor Aaron Crouch did. His powerful and passionate rendition of the prelude lent gravity to the composers’ somewhat haphazard lyrics (full disclosure: this reviewer had only heard the prelude once before and hoped never to hear it again). However, it was clear that in a live listening, the piece is indeed much more impactful and impressive than on recording. By dint of will and many repetitions, the composer condensed the legendary trial of Saint Joan, of which hundreds of pages of documentation exist, into just a few lines. Mr. Crouch delivered the prelude with great reverence and solemnity, and his bugle-clear tenor sounded triumphantly.
The prelude usually dissolves into the cello section it follows, but Maestro Niederhoffer deftly entered straight into the final work of Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite concert. If the prelude had been a more well-known work, the extremely cool juxtaposition of the two pieces would have been more obvious to the public (but it was still a pretty ingenious decision!).
The Shchedrin Carmen Suite was composed as ballet music for his prima ballerina wife Maya Plisetskaya (who, as Niederhoffer explained, first asked Dmitri Shostakovich and then Arman Khachaturian, only to be told by both to use her husband !). Of all the Suites of Carmen (and there are many) this one is by far the most original, in terms of plot and audacity.
The composer brilliantly “suggests” rather than directly states musical themes throughout the score. Snippets and chunks of famous tunes are heard and then fade away, allowing listeners’ brains to fill in the gaps or continue the melodic lines in their own imaginations. Often the underline is presented without the melody line, giving the listener just a hint of something and making them sit up and listen – and THINK. Notably, Shchedrin uses a lot of percussion and focuses more on the rhythmic elements of the score than on the famous melodies. This requires the composer to maintain a very clear pulse and Maestro Niederhoffer was up to the challenge – as was his uniquely refined percussion ensemble. The listener is treated to most of the great melodies, though usually in truncated forms, but certainly enough to make them hum.
Yes, there were a few minor intonation hits and a few moments where the pizzicatos weren’t the sharpest, but the imperfections were too small and inconsequential to dwell on. Maestro Niederhoffer once again demonstrated his impressive and powerful mastery of his strengths in another challenging program. We look forward to Parlando’s next offering.