By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO — When the SOLI Chamber Ensemble considered how to participate in a city-wide festival of music by Richard Strauss, the contemporary-leaning troupe made a typically atypical choice: the elegiac Metamorphosen and the tender love song Morgen! (Tomorrow) in bespoke arrangements for SOLI’s core contingent of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.
The idea of metamorphosis established the theme for the entire concert Feb. 16 in the Alvarez Studio Theater of the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. (The program was repeated the following night at SOLI’s other home, the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall at Trinity University.) Recent works by John Kameel Farah and Marcus Maroney followed Metamorphosen on the first half. On the second, played without pause, works by Philip Glass, Alexandra Gardner, and Elena Kats-Chernin led up to Morgen! The second half was performed in collaboration with Ballet San Antonio, whose artistic director, Gabriel Zertuche, provided new choreography for the occasion.
Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, completed in April 1945, is widely interpreted as a lament for the many prominent German and Austrian opera houses that were destroyed during World War II. The composer’s motivation is not known for certain, but a profound sense of melancholy is inescapable in the music, as is luminous beauty and, at times, a healing balm.
Although the textural complexity of the original orchestration contributes significantly to the work’s emotional impact, much of the character of the music remains intact in Rudolf Leopold’s widely performed realization for string septet, based on the composer’s own short score discovered in 1990.
SOLI’s new four-player version, arranged by composer David Fick of Tacoma, Wash., may be a bridge too far, but it counts as an interesting experiment. The necessary thinning of the texture and the addition of clarinet and piano to the string timbres reveal the remarkable degree to which Strauss’ early influences, Brahms and Wagner, maintained a presence in the underlying armature of Metamorphosen, composed near the end of his life. The main (and probably inevitable) fault in the arrangement is that the clarinet’s timbre tends to push that instrument’s lines to the foreground, undercutting the concentrated sonic unity that seems part and parcel of the score’s conception.
The arrangement of Strauss’ Morgen!, by Fick and SOLI violinist Ertan Torgul, proved more faithful to the spirit of the ecstatic original, with the vocal line assigned to the clarinet (Stephanie Key).
Among the more recent works on the program, the ones with the strongest profile were Farah’s Fugal Metamorphosis on a theme by William Byrd (2012) for solo piano (Carolyn True) and Gardner’s Bloom (2009) for cello (David Mollenauer) and pre-recorded track. Farah’s piece, originally an improvisation, but presented here for the first time in notated form, transformed a theme from Byrd’s Fantasia in C by sending shoots into modernity with bass rumblings, tone clusters, astonishing full-keyboard runs, and abrupt changes of mood or direction. In Gardner’s work, the live cello interacts melodically with pre-recorded layers of skittery cello sounds. Though the work is modernist and not conspicuously tonal, echoes of a peculiarly American, Coplandesque atmosphere survive in the harmonic palette.
Ballet San Antonio traces its history to 1985, but it ascended rapidly in ambition and achievement starting in 2012, when Zertuche rose from ballet master to artistic director. The current company of 30 dancers includes several remarkably gifted principals and soloists. As a sign of the company’s productive capacity, the SOLI collaboration came just one day after a three-performance run of Romeo and Juliet, in Ben Stephenson’s choreography to the Prokofiev score, played live by the San Antonio Symphony.
Philip Glass’ Metamorphosis No. 4 (1988) for piano opened the ballet sequence, with three soloists and the corps dancing in and around a large cubic framework draped with white fabric. The choreography was a hybrid of fluid neo-classicism and a more angular and open-ended modernist vocabulary.
A soloist’s family emergency forced the scrubbing of the dance accompaniment to Gardner’s Bloom, but the choreography for the final two works was clearly conceived as a unity: As Kats-Chernin’s neo-romantic Butterflying (2009) for cello and piano ended, the dancers lay supine on the floor, as though dead or asleep. As Morgen! began, they slowly bestirred themselves, each with unique gestures, and rose. The tableau was affecting, quite beautiful, and well matched to the music. Zertuche showed great discipline and wisdom in having his dancers (clothed aptly in flowing wave-blue garb) file offstage in the middle of the song, allowing the ineffable happiness of the lovers to be expressed by music alone.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.