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A Rebirth of Modern Music

New York
Park Avenue Christian Church
09/24/2010 -  & September 25, 2010
Hannah Lash: Frayed – Four Still – Blood Rose (Opera with libretto by Ms. Lash after the traditional tale, Beauty and the Beast)

Eric Brenner (Countertenor), Kirsten Sollek (Mezzo-soprano)
JACK Quartet: Christopher Otto, Art Streisfeld (Violins), John Pickford Richards (Viola), Kevin McFarland (Cello)

The JACK Quartet (© JACK Quartet)

Few young composer have an entire evening devoted to them in New York, but 28-year-old Hannah Lash is truly an original, well deserves it. I had not heard her music, nor even her name before. But when the JACK Quartet extolled her work, that was enough of an accolade.

Ms. Lash’s two opening string quartet works were not only interesting but–a rare rare quality in today’s composers–actually succinct. She said what needed to be said, and then finished.

She was also not afraid to refer to other periods of music. Not as pastiche or homage, but simply because it made sense. Four Still could have come out of a Telemann suite for stringed instruments, but the short movements were compact, working with dark colors and close harmonies. Her music was not aching to come out of the box she had created, but seemed content to explore the intervals, going back in time because it provided a key to the present.

Frayed is worth more hearings, its complexity curious, even enigmatic. Ms. Lash is a poet as well as a composer, and her own description of the work as “a violent emotional space….barely audible sounds…relentless outbursts…threatening self-annihilation” is better than anything I could offer.

What I did experience, after those barely audible sounds were not spasms or outbursts, but different styles, following through, making interesting tiny worlds. Not mimicking but utilizing Renaissance modal harmonies, as well as string tricks, Ms. Lash created a short setting (less than ten minutes), but quite hypnotic.

The major work was Blood Rose, which she wrote, (so she says) on the ancient Italian-French folktale of Beauty and the Beast. Though those who know the complex early work, from diverse European literature, would find nothing of the original here.

Unfortunately, on the surface, Blood Rose could have been mistaken for an early version of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. A self-hating ogre and a beautiful woman find themselves together in the ogre’s garden. (Like Bluebeard, one has no conception how they find themselves here. Did he invite her after a night at the movies? Was she doing a horticulture story for Martha Stewart magazine?) The unceasing references to blood,, innocence, death, love and revenge are all part of the Bluebeard/Blood Rose commonality.

What Bartók’s librettist, Béla Balász, did for locked doors being opened, Ms. Lash does for flowers. Sometimes they are watered with blood or rain, sometimes they glow under the moon. Sometimes, the libretto goes too far:

“Look,” sings the beast, “The daisy lives! Its leaves are green again!”

I was not as entranced with the slushily exotic imagery as with the music.

Ms. Nash has the genius to give vivid orchestral auras to the most limited of resources. Using a counter-tenor cum soprano, with a mezzo-soprano, with four strings, gives a soft, vibrant velvety touch to even the most tragic music. At one time, the two singers hold a simple major third against almost static string playing. At another time, they overlap each other. But mainly, they were sing separately.

Inevitably, the two voices–urging each other, remonstrating, pushing further and further out to this blood-flooded garden–with the highly passionate string quartet coloring breathed Bartók. Then too, the melodic lines were less melodies than the inevitable emotional pulsing of their situation. Being “together…alone and together” is a sincere enough gesture, but Ms. Lash’s music tells far more than the words.

Whatever the music composition, the artists were superb. JACK Quartet (who I heard last in an hour of total darkness for Haas’s strange Third Quartet), here were live on the pulpit of the church, the clarity of their music as impressive as their virtuosity.

Never had I heard a counter-tenor like Eric Brenner. The counter-tenor range is always a thing of wonder, but Mr. Brenner went into the Himalayan range of a soprano, without missing a beat. Kirsten Sollek, as a mezzo, did have to vie with the memory of mezzo-soprano Judith in Bartók’s opera. But again, she expressed the passion with a lovely melodic line.

By the way, there was no intermission for this program, but nobody needed one. Ms. Lash has a way with chamber and vocal colors which makes even single measures both lustrous and incandescent.

Harry Rolnick



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