When good concerts fall on deaf ears



In late January I was invited to a concert at Bargemusic, Olga Bloom's delightful floating concert hall anchored on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Mirror Visions Ensemble performed two recent song cycles, Russell Platt's From Noon to Starry Night: A Walt Whitman Cantata and Tom Cipullo's A Visit with Emily. The trek out to Brooklyn yielded many rewards, not the least of which was the enchanting venue, but I also found myself revisiting a vague question raised in the first post of this blog: why should we care? 


Like so many of the countless fine New York-based performers and groups I've never heard of, Mirror Visions Ensemble boasts an impressive resume. In 1992 soprano Tobé Malawista, now artistic director of the group, co-founded a vocal trio to present "back-to-back performances of multiple settings of a single text". Today the trio's original tenor, Scott Murphree, joined by the lustrous-voiced soprano Vira Slywotzky and sturdy baritone Jesse Blumberg, continue the mission of presenting music inspired by texts of favorite writers. Concerts have grown beyond compare-and-contrast programming to platforms for new works. The group boasts over 70 commissions to its credit, among them the commissions by Platt and Cipullo given on on January 29.


Arriving only in time for the second song (note to self: avoid HopStop directions), I heard excellent, serious musicians giving poised and engaged performances of Platt's song cycle on Whitman texts, an ambitious and (mostly) serious collection. No wonder: the Ensemble has recorded the cantata and performed it many times. These are terrific singers, with appealing voices, impeccable diction, and personality–I'd be happy to hear any of them again, as well as the intrepid pianist Alan Darling. But–despite the talent and commitment on display I wasn't feeling the spirit. The cantata, written in an elaborate musical language well matched to Whitman's florid and expansive poetry, felt too heavy for my state of attention. The scope was ambitious (and the scale perhaps too expansive for the room), the writing skillful and appealing; yet both the density and the episodic character of each song left me laboring to enter into the spirit of the piece. Perhaps the balance between the grand scale of the writing and the intimacy of the chamber setting felt "off"? I admired the expertise but had a hard time feeling connected to the music. 


The Cipullo songs after intermission were a different matter. A Visit With Emily imagines a small and poignant drama crafted from poems by Emily Dickinson as well as letters exchanged by the Belle of Amherst with her friend T. W. Higginson. The 21 short pieces form a more unified cycle, with the three singers reflecting varied states of mind, separately or in ensembles of deft "quodlibets" of three independent songs performed simultaneously. The account of the reclusive poet's acquaintance with and visits from Higginson make for a touching account of the rise and fall of hope and disappointment, and the deceptively simple musical language places focus on the words over the music. After No. 20, Hymn, and the recap of No. 1, Cavatina, the cycle felt complete, but Cipullo chose to add an Epilogue for tenor, a setting of Dickinson's lovely Nature — the Gentlest Mother is. A pleasant pendant, but for me the emotional trajectory had already been reached.


Why did I enjoy one piece more than the other? I want to be moved–by sheer tonal pleasure, by the beauty or elegant order of the music, or by the poetry in the case of vocal music; the first set tickled my ears and aroused my admiration without touching me. Perhaps it was a question of needing to warm up to listen with engagement on this particular evening–after a very full Saturday I followed bad directions to the venue and arrived late and disgruntled–but for my money the second song cycle had a clarity of structure and meaning that struck me more forcefully than did the first piece, at least on this particular evening. And it's also true that I prefer Dickinson's contained and elegant brevity to Whitman's expansive flamboyance. For all their discursive freedom the Whitman settings came across as more intellectual, while the Dickinson conveyed more emotion. Another variable beyond my personal taste is program order: would the slightly less dense Cipullo songs have provided a better setup for Platt's work?


Ultimately the concert-going experience is subjective; a listener is an active participant in the moment and should be primed for the event. I certainly did not arrive in prime condition to listen to music, which is hardly fair to the musicians. Yet a powerful performance can overcome all kinds of adverse conditions. Case in point: many summers ago I attended a chamber music concert in an old church. The temperature hovered around 90F and the pew seats were hard, and I was distracted and too tired to want to be there. Yet somewhere in the middle of the second movement my wandering mind was drawn to magic on the platform: two musicians creating the ineffable, a tender dialogue between violin and harpsichord more eloquent than speech. Thirty years later that moment remains a touchstone for my concert going, and I rarely blame myself for remaining unmoved by an obviously competent performance. Perhaps seated closer to the performers I might have fallen under their spell (and been less distracted by the periodic bobbing of the boat), but for me the spirit didn't reach the last row at Bargemusic.


I should add that after that long-ago sublime Mozart duo, when I turned to my companion to gush about the performance, his noncommittal answer made it clear that his experience had been different than mine. As the kids say, YMMV — your mileage may vary.