Letter from Boston: Ghosts, yearning, time, the sea, and the Globe

Sequenza 21
28 September 2009

From H.H. Stuckenschmidt, “Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work,” translated by Humphrey Searle (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977):
” … in 1934 [Schoenberg] answered a query from Dr. Walter E. Koons of the National Broadcasting Corporation [sic] in New York, who wanted a definition for a book which he was planning, of what music meant to Schoenberg. His reply was:
‘Music is a simultaneous and a successiveness of tones and tonal-combinations, which are so organized that its impression on the ear is agreeable, and that its impression on the intelligence is comprehensible, and that these impressions have the power to influence occult parts of our soul and of our sentimental spheres and that this influence makes us live in a dreamland of fulfilled desires, or in a dreamed hell.'”
He had to ask?

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Let’s say that your tastes run to Gagaku, the world’s most ancient (and ancient-sounding) orchestral music. Or to Messiaen’s deliriously half-cracked song cycle “Harawi” (“Doundou tchil! Doundou tchil! Doundou tchil!” — one can’t help quoting). Or “Pierrot Lunaire.” Or that claustrophobic film classic “Woman of the Dunes” (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) …Then lucky you if you happened to be at the First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough Street, on a recent Sunday night (September 17) for the local premiere of Lee Hyla’s “At Suma Beach” (2003).

Something you noticed first off, and with relief, about Hyla’s “reduction/adaptation” of the Noh play “Matsukaze” was its avoidance of bogus japonaiserie, even of the most refined type. (If you crave some queasy examples of that, go and listen to Toru Takemitsu on one of his really bad days. And by the way, how widely known is it that in the early 20th century the Japanese themselves were turning out imitations of “Madame Butterfly”? Source: William P. Malm, University of Michigan.)

The piece’s instrumental setup — clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, and percussion — has nothing particularly extreme about it per se. But any mezzo-soprano who thinks about taking it on had better be carrying extra insurance. You either sing it or you die.
Mostly sing it, that is. Also required are: speaking, half-speaking and half-singing, moaning, whispering, and even growling. The pitches are fixed most of the time, but every so often they’re let loose and encouraged to range just about wherever they like. But please to come back. Towards the close, a few choice ones go either very high or very low.
Does “At Suma Beach” have one text or two? The question arises because for some 25 minutes the piece is constantly oscillating back and forth between the Japanese and an English translation, the latter making a point of leaving the Japanese word order quite as it is thank you. An example: “So recited with reason/Still longing deepens/’Yoiyo ni/Nugite waga nuru kari-goromo.'”

It probably doesn’t matter, since there was a kind of double benefit here. (1) You got to hear the abstract beauty an unfamiliar language can yield up (such vowels, such rhythms!) and (2) you also got to hear a fair amount of informative content. The sad, eerie story did indeed get told. We always knew where we were and what the characters were thinking and feeling.

It went like this. A tiny wisp of clarinet sonority gently detaches itself from the other instruments. Then comes some obliquely pictorial moon and sea music (more wisps and glints), and the singer enters: Bach specialist Pamela Dellal, whose lustrous mezzo — and its extensions — seemed primed for anything.

We’re told about the two sisters, who are now ghosts, about stifled passions of centuries past, and about the lover whom one of the sisters has willed into returning in an other than human shape. Nothing comes of it in the end except more longing and pain, the passage of time, the wind and the sea — those wisps of clarinet sonority have returned — and the sea and the wind. We are where we were.

Of course Hyla’s music is informed here by what traditional Japanese music sounds like — that’s why he went to Japan for two months — but it’s informed as well by his ease and familiarity with many different kinds of music, high and low, mandarin and demotic. (On that two-month visit to Japan to gather material Hyla found that there are such things as Gagaku garage bands. Well, he would. And by his own admission he threw out quite a lot to achieve that seamless 25-minute span.)

Overall what most struck your reviewer most about “At Suma Beach” was its feeling of steady, subtle emotional momentum. Next, how shrewdly integrated the thing was, and what a fetching, varicolored “sound” piece it turned out to be without half trying. That’s how Hyla is with instruments. He can’t help himself.

Marvelous stuff. Chilling. Moving. Will we ever hear it again?

The excellent performers — please note their names! — were: the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble: Diane Heffner (clarinet), Cyrus Stevens (violin), Kate Vincent (viola), Michael Curry (cello), Donald Berman (piano), Robert Schulz (percussion), with Pamela Dellal (mezzo) and Scott Wheeler (conductor).

* * * * *

October looms, the evenings draw in earlier, and the Boston musical scene has come to life again — flutist Fenwick Smith gave his annual virtuosic staples-plus-oddities recital at NEC, the BSO has had the carpenters in at Symphony Hall to lay down a new stage floor (mind those acoustics, lads!), the Handel and Haydn Society/English National Opera’s strongly sung, nice to look at, hip-exotic “Orfeo” came and went, and a rather dimly played all-Nikos Skalkottas concert at BU succeeded in raising doubts — not what was intended at all — about the reputation of this composer, who was cited as one of the 20th-century’s half dozen greatest by Hans Keller, the flintily brilliant UK opinion-monger, Haydn expert, string quartet coach, and BBC heavy, now deceased. (Evidently the Bis CDs of his music make a different impression, and it turns out that folklorism can indeed lie down companionably with the 12-tone method. See various rave reviews in Gramophone magazine.) A big shock: how loud and vehement, bludgeoning home point after interpretive point (the victim: Mozart’s K. 387), the Borromeo String Quartet, once everybody’s darlings, has become. Well, look at all the touring they do. They’ve caught the disease. Richard Dyer is gone, very gone (as of Sept. 18) from the Boston Globe. What a change in atmosphere. It’s as if the moment he left they immediately whisked away the throne chair, vowing: Never again another monstre sacre, never never. The question now is: who is this Jeremy Eichler person? Is there any ragtime in his soul? Will he spell even a wee bit of trouble? Let us pray.
All of which may be neither here nor there. The real event of the month — we insist — was Lee Hyla’s “At Suma Beach.”