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Afternoon of a Dawn

New York
Alice Tully Hall
10/27/2001 -  
Claude Debussy: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun; Eight Piano Preludes; Three Songs of Charles d'Orleans; Chansons de Bilitis
Alberic Magnard: String Quartet

Jeremy Denk (piano)
Theodora Hanslowe (mezzo)
New York Virtuoso Singers
Bard Festival Chamber Players

When did modern music actually begin? Was there a defining moment, like Newton’s apple or Archimedes’ bath? Perhaps it was that instant in 1894 when a particular modulation so radical and elemental was first heard in Claude Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun that the listener was shaken to the very roots of his emotional support system, the stirring of a racial memory akin to the sense of homecoming which we all feel when near the primal mother of the ocean (and refined ten years later by Debussy in La Mer). What’s certain is that music never looked back after the premiere of this masterpiece of impressionism and its universality launched the career of what otherwise could easily have been just another tunesmith starving in a Parisian garret. For their New York City conclusion to this year’s festival of the music of Debussy, Bard College presented a concert of chamber works of this popular but still largely underappreciated composer under the rubric “Debussy and his World” and also introduced a rarity by his unjustly obscure contemporary Alberic Magnard (presumably representing the “World”) for a disappointingly small crowd at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday afternoon.

The faun appeared in an arrangement created for Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances and was listed in the program as being realized by second Viennese student Benno Sachs. The archives of the society are spotty at best and so this might be indeed a proper designation, but other evidence indicates that the miniaturization was actually the work of Hanns Eisler, who went on to fame as the most ardent accompanist to Eastern European Communism, or even that it was fashioned by Schoenberg himself. It was at the society that expressionism first encountered and absorbed impressionism and Ravel was also asked to come and perform his new sounds to the enthralled members. The only surety is that the handwritten notes in the performing score of the faun are those of Alban Berg, who almost undoubtedly was the pianist for this arrangement’s first performance (apparently given, with a deliciously ironic nod to Schoenberg’s numerological obsession, on October 27, 1920, 81 years to the day from yesterday afternoon’s concert and 50 years after the demise of this most important of masters, who rivals only Debussy as the father of contemporary music). Whoever is responsible for this inventive instrumentation, the assembled Bard throng performed it strikingly, allowing each colorful line to emerge for a fleeting pirouette, a moment in the lazy sun, the fully lived life of a mayfly. The beautiful, singing tone of Erica Kiesewetter (concertmaster of the American Symphony Orchestra) played magically against the combined woodwind effects with their hint of a humid concertina, the entire painting punctuated by the striking of tiny antique cymbals (think of Monet’s Japanese bridge). This was a wonderful performance.

It was surrounded by fine readings of eight of the piano Preludes by Avery Fisher Award winner Jeremy Denk and an example of that most rare of genres (it wouldn’t be a Bard event without this sort of buried treasure) the a cappella choral work, expertly sung by Harold Rosenbaum’s New York Virtuoso Singers. Also on the program were three Chansons de Bilitis, marvelously inventive pieces with stunning accompaniments by Mr. Denk, however I did not care for the voice of the mezzo, its very weight negating most of the girlish passion infused by the original author of the poetry (actually a fictitious character, purported to be an ancient Greek poetess, who has come down over time to enjoy a “life” of her own as a Lesbian standard bearer; Bilitis is perhaps the ultimate impressionistic creation!).

I have always had a penchant for the four symphonies of Magnard despite their virtual invisibility in this country but had never before heard his only string quartet. Co-artistic director of the festival, cellist Robert Martin, led a superb reading of the piece, most notable in this context for its utter dissimilarity to the music of Debussy. The work reminds me more of contemporary overheated Teutonic passions (the German connections to Magnard are strong: on the plus side, he was named after a major character in The Ring, but this is grossly outweighed to the negative as he was killed by being set on fire by German soldiers during the Great War) and sounds most like one of the early quartets of Zemlinsky with a hint of Max Reger-like fugal propensities. The slow movement was lovingly rendered and, on a first hearing, seems to be the center jewel in the crown. For sheer musical value, this section’s performance was breathtaking; those of us who stayed were more than richly rewarded for our intellectual curiosity. The Bard festival is often disparaged by my critical brethren for its being academic in a pejorative sense. I have always dismissed this as simply jealous whining (I know of one of my more famous colleagues whose entire relevant education consists of one music appreciation night course at Juilliard) and instead embrace these glorious afternoons and evenings as the best way to peek into the corners of the classical music world. For those of us who want to experience more than just a couple of dozen familiar symphonies, there is no more edifying or entertaining way than to audit an occasional musical course at one of the concert venues of Bard.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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