Puts the Orchestra players on, DiDonato teases an upcoming premiere, cooks up a naughty ‘History’
What was old was new again, and what was new sounded pleasantly old, as the Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble performed the music of Igor Stravinsky and Kevin Puts on Sunday afternoon in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.
The main event was a vivid and integral representation of a 20th century monument, The soldier’s story, sounding as fresh and sassy as if Stravinsky had written it yesterday. The prelude was music which, in fact, has been wrote yesterday: Kevin Puts’ She can take her pen…, in which mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato offered a taste of her role as Virginia Woolf in Puts’ opera Hours, which will have its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on November 22.
Leading up to the prelude, the musicians of the Met’s much-loved orchestra retreated from the drama of artistic creation and the suicide of the new opera to wander into more spiritual realms, in selections from Puts’ chamber piece in 2012. Living frescoes.
‘Living’ was a word to cling to in these three works, as images and stories lead the listener through a gallery of mirrors of art inspired by art inspired by art: a composer contemplating a video installation contemplating medieval paintings; an opera derived from a film derived from a novel derived from another novel; a Russian folk tale of military marches, Spanish street music and American jazz.
Despite all the tangle of references, the evening was essentially about life – the “being” in “To be or not to be”. In 2012, just after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his first opera, silent night, met compounds Living frescoes in response to the “cycles of birth, death and rebirth” suggested in Going day by day, a work by videographer Bill Viola inspired by Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
Writing for Messiaen’s end-of-time piano, violin, cello and clarinet quartet (yet another reference), Puts does not imitate the French composer’s spacious style, but suggests eternal cycles by framing scenes of life – violent, friendly or ecstatic – in soft and enigmatic “interludes” with open-air tunes à la Copland.
The ensemble of clarinetist Dean LeBlanc, violinist Daniel Khalikov, cellist Susannah Chapman and pianist Bradley Moore strongly characterized three of Puts’ five original “frescoes”: the dissonant rage of “Fire Birth”, the bolero at the foot light of “The Path” and the happy and intertwined melodies of “First Light”. (The other two movements and an interlude were omitted from this performance.)
The idea of ”not being” appears as a theme of Hours in all its versions – Puts’s opera, the 2002 Oscar-winning film, Michael Cunningham’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize novel – but he was far overwhelmed by the portrait of Woolf offered on Sunday by DiDonato and a thirteen-piece ensemble led by the musical director of the Met (and bandleader of Hours) Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Instead, excerpts from Greg Pierce’s libretto floated, like lieder, on the author’s stream of consciousness as she contemplated her life and the novel, Mrs Dallowayshe was trying to write.
Opera vocal performance was not on the menu as, in all three linked segments, DiDonato as Woolf gloomily regarded her sullen husband and tedious country life, yearned for the excitement of London and “stared[ed] in wonder that the goods arrive” in the mind of a working writer.
Extending her rich voice to the small venue and playing well with her instrumental partners, the singer dove into a robust lower register as she watched Mr. Woolf frown on a manuscript, and in the end, captured the wonder of the author discovering his novel. immortal first line: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
The soldier’s story, with its Faustian account of a soldier’s contract with the devil, is often heard as a suite of instrumental music with minimal narration, if any, but in its original form it was a play of an hour for narrator, actors, dancers and seven musicians. Sunday’s full performance put all the theatrical responsibility on the broad shoulders of one actor, Marc Kudisch, who didn’t exactly dance, but walked the stage narrating, miming the action and portraying characters ranging from soldier Joe to the Princess to the Cuddly Devil. in all its disguises.
Kudisch’s imaginative and energetic performance of the English verse translation, delivered in a familiar tone suitable for the intimate room, was punctuated with cutting parodies of popular World War I music and Lutheran chorales, cleverly performed by a small disjointed group. (its size made necessary in 1918 by the deprivations of war) composed of Jeremias Sergiani-Velázquez, violin; Edward Francis-Smith, double bass; Anton Rist, clarinet; Evan Epifanio, bassoon; Weston Sprott, trombone; Raymond Riccomini, cornet; and Steven White, percussion.
Each player made remarkable individual contributions, led by Sergiani-Velázquez, whose violin brilliantly told the story of a soldier and his violin with eager, strumming staccato and virtuoso flourishes. Riccomini’s cornet twirled an ornate pasodoble in the “Royal March”. White’s snappy drumming drove the action throughout and remained memorable solo to deliver the piece’s fateful final crescendo.
The Met Orchestra Chamber Ensemble performs works by Brahms, Dvořák and Villa-Lobos on December 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall. carnegiehall.org.