Monday Evening Concerts is the longest running contemporary music series in the world. The series began in 1939, and has programmed the world premieres of pieces by Stravinsky, Boulez, Sciarrino, and Kurtag, as well as U.S. premieres of just about every major 20th century composer you can think of. Their concert on April 16th was not a momentous occasion for premieres, but it was my first time hearing Isabel Mundry performed live, and first time hearing a Sciarrino performance in the United States. I was giddy with excitement. Spoiler alert: the concert lived up to expectations. I am absolutely amazed by the talent of the performers, and I wish to commend concert curator and conductor Jonathan Hepfer on a marvelously selected and executed program.
Aptly named “Labyrinths and Enigmas,” the concert offered intricate, intimate works by Isabel Mundry (b. 1963) and Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947). First, Mundry’s Dufay Bearbeitungen [translation: Dufay Machining or Machination] (2003/4) delivered familiar Dufay chansons (familiar if you’re into Renaissance motets, at least) in a 21st century way. The text and musical motifs themselves were largely unchanged from the original – the staging and light work made the performance new. In the first section, the instrumentalists sat around the reciter in the dark. The lights only rose when the clarinetist played his first note, swelling and brightening like a sunrise. When the music fully enters, it manifests in ways Dufay never could have dreamed: on bass marimba, on fluttering alto flute, on dulcet chimes. Mundry used quite a bit of low end to make the music feel substantial, but also delicate touches and staccato to give it an ethereal lightness. In each section, the instrumentalists moved farther away from the reciter. First they moved to the edges of the stage and almost into the audience. For the third section, they went up into the balcony surrounding the stage and audience, playing down like angels from on high. As the musicians moved farther from center stage, the music moved farther from the original Dufay sound. And yet it felt less like the musicians moving away and more like the audience zooming in on the reciter. Mundry applied dissonance, harmonics, and unfamiliar timbres and spectral techniques like plucking the strings inside the piano to gradually move Dufay to the present day. At the same time, the modern staging techniques moved the audience into Dufay’s world.
After the intermission to reset the stage and the audience’s ears, we were engulfed in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Perduto in una città d’acque (translation: Lost in a city of water) (1990/91). His program notes indicate that the piece is largely inspired by visiting the composer Luigi Nono in Venice near the end of Nono’s life. He notes that death resonates through our hearts, like pitch resonates in our ears; the meanings of both are illusive. In Perduto, I felt like I was underwater as a rush of quiet notes flooded my ears. Occasionally, the flood was broken by an Ablinger-esque burst of notes. I imagined I could hear words in the piano, but I just couldn’t understand the language. Pianist Richard Valitutto managed to splash the keys and swirl the notes just right so to keep the illusion of treading water, swimming through the melody and eddying through the harmony.
This was not my first encounter with Sciarrino, but it was my introduction to his operatic work. The audience was provided with the Italian libretto and its English translation. It was still difficult to keep pace with the pointillist singing style. Eventually I gave up keeping track and finally relaxed into the music. Aspern Suite (1979) is a condensed version of The Aspern Papers, an opera based on the eponymous novella by Henry James about Lord Byron’s affairs. The surprisingly sassy songs include snippets of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and gondolier songs reworked into Sciarrino’s mystical compositional language. Alice Teyssier, the amazing soprano who brought these songs alive, sang from a cozy armchair, and sometimes from offstage. Whether she was sitting, standing, or backstage, the orchestra changed their timbres to match her vocal timbre and environmental filtering. It seems like a trick that can only work in certain spaces, but the ensemble pulled it off very well.
On the whole, the concert showcased incredible talent and a variety of compositional styles and textures. Clocking in at a full two hours, it wasn’t for the faint of heart or the tepid contemporary music aficionado. For those seeking the cream of the crop in late 20th – early 21st century music programming and performance, you will not go wrong with Monday Evening Concerts.